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Kenneth MacKenzie & T.N. Vance

An Exchange on Nationalisation

A Discussion of Government Ownership of War Industries

(March 1952)

From The New International, Vol. XVIII No. 2, March–April 1952, pp. 108–111.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

To the Editor:

Your publication continues to be one of the few things I read that consistently makes sense. It is only because I like you that I would venture a little disagreement.

T.N. Vance ends his brilliant series on the was economy with what seems to me too great an emphasis on the proposal – “Nationalize the War Industries.” He says this must now be the chief slogan of socialists, and gives it special place among the other transitional slogans as corresponding to the needs of the workers and the times. But how does it actually fit in with our other demands and our philosophy?

The paid thinkers of the rich like to equate socialism with any build-up in the authority of the state. But we have learned to our sorrow that the equation is false. The most nationalized state in existence is the least social, the least beneficial to man. There exists no economic law to guarantee that as economic power is taken from individual companies or combines of companies and put in the hands of a government, it thereby is any easier for the working class to control and apply to pro-human ends.

Many workers who now find it easier to deal with private employers would consider it is calamity for the government to operate all big industry.

If carried into effect, nationalization, unlike the other transitional demands, might not stimulate worker power as opposed to owner power. The sliding scale, though distorted by the employers, has raised a great issue and exposed the administration’s wage-price fakery. With the “books” once opened, things would never again be quite the same. Worker’s control, worker’s defense, these things build the confidence of the class and instruct and educate workers to take further responsibilities.

But putting all economic power in Washington, even under an administration of labor leaders, still leaves open the possibility of transition from a capitalist to a bureaucrat state. And compensation to former owners may eat up the economic benefits. So it seems to me that we should support nationalization if in time of crisis the American working class desires to take this road as have the English, Germans, etc., but not make it an unqualified fundamental issue at any and all times.


Sincerely yours,
Kenneth MacKenzie


Reply by Vance

Kenneth MacKenzie is, of course, absolutely correct when he observes that nationalization in and of itself is not necessarily progressive – and may well be reactionary in its impact on society. The lessons of Stalinism – not to mention other examples of nationalization – are too clear on this basic lesson of modern history.

Nevertheless, nationalization of war industries is the correct political slogan for socialists today. It is not put forward in the abstract, but could only become meaningful through mobilization of powerful class and social forces. It is not to be contrasted with Workers Control of Production; on the contrary, the latter supplements the former.

It was not possible at the conclusion of my last article on the Permanent War Economy to expand on the development and interrelationship of tactical political slogans. Nor was it necessary. The essential thought was contained in one sentence: “Neither nationalization of war industries nor a capital levy are thinkable as realistic political slogans without the development of an independent labor party.”

In the political context of USA 1952, nationalization of war industries is the only economic slogan that corresponds to the objective needs of the political-social situation. The stretch-out in the “Defense Program” has dramatically revealed the weaknesses of the Permanent War Economy under capitalism. A process of atrophy, revealing an organic disease of the body economic, has set in. The ratio of war outlays to total production required to sustain the economy at full employment and high production levels is constantly under pressure of having to be increased. Immediately after World War II a 10 per cent ratio of war outlays sufficed to offset the natural tendencies of capitalism toward depression and crisis. After Korea, with its consequent acceleration in the accumulation of capital, a 15 per cent ratio of war outlays barely achieved a precarious equilibrium. Today it may well be that a 20 per cent ratio of war outlays (direct and indirect) to total output is needed to prevent a serious undermining of the economy.

On the economic front, war contracts become more and more desirable to the bourgeoisie. Production of the means of destruction. is now at least as important as production of the means of production in the capitalist process of production and accumulation of surplus values. And on the political front, the preparations for war against Stalinism dominate the international and American political scenes. Virtually every issue that arises is immediately related to the irrepressible conflict between Stalinist and American imperialisms, if indeed it does not arise out of this conflict.

One cannot imagine Eisenhower, Taft, Stevenson, Truman, or any spokesman for the Republican and Democratic parties favoring the nationalization of war industries. That would immediately generate fratricidal strife within the bourgeoisie. Nor, for that matter, can one readily picture Murray, Green or any other trade union defender of capitalism advocating taking the profit out of war through the nationalization of war industries. That would immediately lead to a split between organized labor and the capitalist political machines. The. trade union leaders would consider such action only if the ranks of organized labor make it unmistakably clear that they are for it.

An entire process of class struggle and education is therefore necessary before any but the most militant workers support the nationalization of war industries. In this struggle socialists must be in the forefront, for here in one, easily comprehensible slogan the evils and illnesses of capitalism are immediately laid bare. If the Permanent War Economy is to become our way of life indefinitely, as the leaders of the bourgeoisie openly state, then what is more logical than making the war industries serve the “interests” of all by making them the property of all? We do not have to belabor the advantages of the slogan, “nationalization of war industries” properly utilized.

Moreover, we may well be on the threshold of the long-heralded regroupment of American political forces. It is impossible indefinitely to maintain an archaic political set-up that no longer serves the needs of the ruling class and has long since lost any meaning for the mass of the population. The timid leaders of labor may well be immobilized by the shifting political forces. They may even be unaware that structural alterations are taking place in the body politic. But when they are, so to speak, “hit on the head” – as they must be in the course of the next few years – then they may awaken to the fact that the American political trend must either be in the direction of Bonapartism or independent labor political action. In such an objective situation (not “at any and all times”), the struggle to nationalize the war industries can play an important role in the political awakening of the American working class.

Socialists ought not to wait for the working class spontaneously to “desire to take this road (of nationalization of war industries).” They should and can lead the workers in a rapid and vast re-educational process. That is the real significance of putting forward the slogan “nationalization of war industries” to-day.

T.N. Vance

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