The Fate of Civil Liberty in Imperialist War

Submitted by AWL on 10 July, 2013 - 10:04

Democratic Rights Are the First Casualty

(Article from Labor Action's annual May special issue, 1951)

This year May Day again sees a "Loyalty Day" parade, sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and headed in New York by General Douglas MacArthur.

Again the Stalinists mimic old-fashioned May Days with a parade of the Fur Workers and the Faithful. It also sees the narrowing of the standards of loyalty for federal employment from "reasonable grounds" to "reasonable doubt." And the right to a judicial hearing before an organization can be determined as "subversive" just squeezes through the Supreme Court, while concentration camps are still provided for under the McCarran Law.

We are "viewing with alarm" the alarming things that are happening to democracy in the United States. It is true there are some signs in an opposite direction, notably the retention of the right to strike at the recent UAW convention. But the conspicuous mood of the country is reactionary. It is a mood vocalized by McCarthy, Jenner, Wherry, Nixon and Mundt, by Taft and MacArthur. It is characterized by fear of war, flirtation with atomic attacks, witch- hunt.

Is this mood temporary? Will it be the temper of the times to come? What is the condition of democracy and democratic rights? What is the trend?

All questions today are bound up with one big question: World War III. Democracy and democratic rights are no exception. The question of democracy is as important a question as any, especially since for the third time it is declared that "democracy" is girding itself again against totalitarianism.


For the liberal, the Norman Thomas socialist, the Democrat, the Republican, Senator McCarthy, General MacArthur, the labor leader, democracy is an anonymous, unqualified changeling, with its private meaning to each. But beneath this label what unites all of them is the basic identification with United States capitalism in the coming war. For MacArthur it can mean the right to flout the civilian authority, to advocate the third world war now. For Norman Thomas it means the attempt to sell to the Indian people the idea that the United States is an innocent peace-loving democracy and not an imperialist nation.

The common error of all these viewpoints is their common allegiance to United States capitalism. For the Marxist socialist, with his analysis of the entire social system and its economic organization, the task of definition is easier. It is the economic basis of a social system which differentiates one from another, and which permits socialists to distinguish capitalist democracy based upon the capitalist mode of production from (say) Athenian democracy which was based upon slavery. It thus permits the socialist to understand the extent and limitation of democratic rights which correspond to a society where monopoly dominates economic life.


We are confronted today with an American capitalism which is wealthier than at any time in its past or than any other country. It is, in fact, the only prosperous capitalism in existence, a fact which afflicts many of its liberal and labor adherents with nationalistic myopia. The Western bloc, its allies, is composed of dying systems, which look to the United States for economic and military assistance.

Furthermore, this wealthy, booming society is based on a permanent war economy, in which more and more of its butter must be exchanged for guns. It is just beginning to make the transition to a total war economy.

The war aspects of the economy bear an important relationship to the problem of democratic rights. The specific weight of the military in economic matters reflects itself in political matters. Just as in the last war, government controls of production will bring in tow government controls over manpower, wages, the right to strike, etc.

But, if these are the more or less usual wartime controls, it must be remembered that the loyalty and security checks which are also usual wartime controls have become the rule during the pre-war period. They can only become intensified as the war nears.

To ascertain the trend, we can look at the period of World War II, the most recent war of "democracy against totalitarianism." Controls by the government and restriction of liberties were effected then, too. The fact that the United States did not become totalitarian in the course of combating a totalitarian force would not lead to the mistake of assuming that the trend was not there.

Russia, the present "enemy," was then the ally. The brakes were on so far as persecution of the Stalinist puppet party in this country went. The labor movement, by virtue of its support tothe administration, policed itself and gave up its right to strike. The native Stalinist movement, still mistakenly identified with radicalism and socialism, was in the forefront of the no-strike movement.


The influences in the conduct of the government toward opposition groups which were present in the last war are absent today. The peculiarities of the Stalinist movement, now in opposition, take on new meaning. Stalinism is still mistakenly identified with radicalism and socialism because of its anti-capitalist character. Because of its anti-capitalism, it still utilizes elements in the labor and liberal movements. With this as the setting, McCarthyism rides triumphant, smearing Stalinists, liberals, labor leaders, the State Department and the administration with the same brush.

But the curtain-raiser was provided by Truman himself when he instituted the loyalty program. The "subversive list" was drawn up by his own attorney general. A reactionary Congress passed the McCarran Act, which "democratized" the government procedures by providing for a court hearing and whose passage was completed with the "liberal" Democrats attaching the concentration- camp rider. A macabre comedy!

Yet democratic traditions remain strong: in the United States. But they have undergone a sea- change. Consider a basic Jeffersonian tradition of civil liberties, as contained in the latter's inaugural address:

"If there be any among us who wish to dissolve this Union or change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."

And consider the actuality!

The administration, the self-styled inheritor of Jefferson, is an uneasy coalition of the big-city machines with their gangster allies, the Dixiecrats and the labor-liberal movement.


Its reaction to the tune played by the McCarthyites has been to dance faster. It scarcely dares to carry out its puny price-control schemes. It courts a break with the labor movement in its flagrant handing over of wartime posts to big- business dollar-a-year men.

If the Republicans are on the offensive against democratic rights, the Democrats (including its liberal and ADA supporters) are not stalwartly defending them. On the contrary, the government anti-Stalinist witch-hunt has broadened to include all "heretics," in government, the school system and the labor movement. The banker-regents of the University of California and the labor leaders, including some of the "progressive" ones, are caught in the same trap. There have been outstanding cases in the labor movement, most recently the Schuetz case, described in last week's LABOR ACTION, where the labor officialdom has been reluctant or unwilling to act on behalf of the democratic rights of one of its representatives.

This atmosphere of fear and persecution is supposed to help defeat Stalinism at home and prepare for its military defeat in the war to come. "No civil liberties for those who are against civil liberties," is the justification of the totalitarian liberals. But all concede that if any war is an "ideological" one, it-is the one shaping up between "democracy" and "totalitarianism." It is sometimes referred to as a war of ideologies.

It is undoubtedly true that the Stalinist ideology preys upon the weaknesses of capitalism and that its anti-capitalist ideology has an appeal. But capitalism displays its weakness today most openly where it resorts to force - to police measures at home and military measures abroad - in its struggle against Stalinism.

The weakening of democratic rights and the resort to violence may defeat Stalinism, but only in a reactionary way. The extension of democracy and democratic measures - freer speech, freer assembly, greater civil liberties at home and the stimulation of democracy abroad are the only means to a genuine, progressive and lasting defeat of Stalinism.


Given the inability of capitalism and its parties to extend democratic measures, it is doubly the duty of the labor, liberal and socialist movement to press for them. The struggle for democracy and socialism is continuous and interlinked. The early socialists and the leaders of scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, welcomed the extensions of democratic rights which came in with the rise of the young capitalist system. Socialists have always jealously guarded democratic rights under capitalism and sought their extension. They have had to seek their extension because no capitalism, however democratic, is a genuine democracy at bottom, based upon and responding effectively to the will of the people.

The United States, founded upon revolutionary rebellion from foreign tyranny and without a feudal past, is often considered the apogee of the democracies. But it has always been a class democracy, based upon economic inequality. Today, more than ever, with its unmatched wealth, it is an aristocratic democracy, a monopoly democracy, a dollar democracy.

Where economic inequality exists, political inequality also exists. The limited democracy of this capitalism, however, is shrinking still further, given the war, the present political hysteria, the strategy of force in combating Stalinism. Incredible alternatives are posed for humanity today: Stalinism or atomization! Both are barbarous and inhuman.

Everywhere in the world where we may still protest the growing infringements against our freedom, we must call for a third, human, life-preserving alternative, the security and peace of world socialism, the first truly democratic and therefore human society.

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