Paul Mattick 1944

Reflections on the Revolution of Our Times (Review)

Source: Western Socialist, Boston, USA, June 1944;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick;
Proofed: and corrected by Geoff Traugh, August 2005.

Reflections on the Revolution of Our Times, by Harold J. Laski. The Viking Press, New York, 1943. (410pp., $3.50)

Harold Laski’s wordy and repetitious book attempts to reconcile the “liberal” ideology of the British Labour Party and the American New Deal with the power politics of the United Nations. Despite its length, this volume is a propaganda tract on the intellectual level of The New Republic and The Nation. It was undoubtedly intended to be the most brilliant of all the apologies for the Allied Nations, but instead it is a boring, hypocritical and unconvincing sort of self-defense of the author’s position. Laski tries to bridge the gap between his socialistically-tainted past and his present-day chauvinism and open support of the ruling classes. It is, of course, only in his own imagination that he views his present practice with a bad conscience for he and his Party have always served the cause they are serving now. Their “opposition” to capitalist society has always been a “most loyal opposition” and as such was one of the strongest pillars of the existing regime. Bad conscience in the present case can be accounted for only because the discrepancies between liberal phraseology and the capitalist reality are really too glaring for the comfort of a man who worries about his intellectual reputation.

The specific purpose of this book as well as the author’s own past require a highly critical attitude towards capitalist society. But whatever Laski may say is said in support of his main thesis, namely, that everything must be subordinate to the task of defeating the Nazis. To be sure, he also says that the transformation from a capitalist to a socialist society cannot be postponed until after the war but must be progressively realized while the war is going on. He must be aware, however, of the illusory character of his suggestions in this respect. The previous course of the war and the internal changes it has brought about do not permit even the most optimistic to hope for a reformistic development in the direction of socialism.

Nevertheless, it is one of the purposes of Laski’s book to keep hope alive. In both England and America large layers of people, though totally opposed to Nazism, are not able to support their governments wholeheartedly because of their previous disillusions and their knowledge of the character of capitalism. They fear that in the very process of fighting fascism abroad they may foster it at home. They are still convinced that imperialistic rivalries and capitalistic expansion-needs transcend questions of ideology and forms of government, they still maintain that the basic contradictions of the capitalist system are responsible for the war. It is difficult for such people to become enthusiastic over anti-fascist slogans. To keep them in line not only by force of circumstances but also ideologically it is necessary to convince them that it is possible to make rational decisions as to what stand to take. The theory of the lesser evil serves as the medium to this end. One is supposed to choose that side in the war which provides the better opportunities for further progressive social development. This side is, of course, that of the United Nations.

It is, however, difficult to prove this. Russia is a dictatorship and the government of England is, after all, Churchill’s. Only Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and the now disappearing New Deal appear promising. Laski makes all he can out of the latter and the hope of mankind appears to be truly symbolized in the American President. Yet difficulties remain and a lot of twisting of facts is necessary to provide Laski’s ideas with an aura of reality. After describing the cruelties of Bolshevik totalitarianism in all its ugliness, he is quick to offer the familiar excuse of the enormous task which awaited the Stalinist regime, surrounded as it was, by a world of enemies, particularly German fascism. He is convinced, however, that Russian state-capitalism stands for an economy of abundance designed to foster general welfare, and he believes that with the removal of the external threat Russia will become a more highly developed democracy that those hitherto existing. This Russian democracy appears as victory’s greatest gain, since it will lead to an extension of democracy all over the world — including defeated Germany.

Describing the capitalistic contradiction as a discrepancy between the development of the social forces of production, and the relatively static relations of production, Laski thinks that the contradiction can be solved by changing production relations. This would turn the economy of scarcity into one of abundance. Production relations for Laski do not mean, however, the relation between capital and labor, between exploiter and exploited, but the relations between capitalists during the different stages of development from laissez faire through monopoly to state-capitalism. He believes in the possibility of a benevolent state within the framework of class society. Opposing competition and monopoly, he favors planning of the Russian kind which would allow for production for consumption and an improvement in welfare generally, despite continued social inequalities — if only imperialism were to be ruled out of the world. Victory over Hitler, he hopes, may lead to such a state of world affairs.

Mistaking state-capitalism for socialism, Laski is delighted with all the state-capitalistic tendencies fostered by the war. He should then, one would think, also favor German fascism, for it comes nearest to the Russian ideal. But Laski is not only a writer of books, he is also a friend of the New Deal, a good Englishman and a member of the Labour Party. The tactics of English, American, and Russian politicians to win their war he considers good statesmanship even if sometimes disagreeable. Similar tactics in Germany, however, he considers gangster methods. The war, though not totally removed from the internal contradictions of world capitalism, is blamed on Hitler and his henchmen. With the removal of the Nazis, suspicion and fear may subside in the world and a base may be established for a true collaboration between classes and nations.

Hitler’s war is pictured as a counter-revolution against the onward march of social planning. And the reaction of the capitalists is explained on the basis of their inability to understand the new society now in progress and the real character of the counter-revolution. Yet the capitalists must have learned by now that Nazism does not solve their problems. The counter-revolution is against everybody this side of the fascist gangsters themselves. So Laski thinks that the capitalists, unable to succeed by means of counter-revolution or to solve the social problems except through the institution of socialism, may now be in a position to be convinced that it would be advantageous to aid the socialistic transformation of society in order to share its privileges. This is “revolution by consent” which is only another way of expressing the familiar class collaboration emphasized during periods of war. The results of such slogans are well known. In Germany they led to Hitlerism. What they lead to now in the democracies was very well expressed in Roosevelt’s proposal for a national service act. This kind of class collaboration indicates the first step in the fascisization of capitalist society. It really means fascism by consent, for the kind of collaboration it involves removes every possibility for the workers and, simultaneously, increases and centralizes the powers of their adversaries in the capitalist state. Laski’s revolution by consent is only the English version of Hitler’s “classless national-socialist state.”

That Laski means business just as Hitler does is apparent both in the demagoguery he employs and by his Vansittartism with regard to his hoped-for post-war world. To take one example, he is for Indian independence of course. However, it must not help to bring about a fascist victory. Since the danger exists, though nobody knows why, he is not for independence just now. He will be for independence, one can guess, as soon as Churchill and Roosevelt come out for it. Meanwhile, everything should be done to improve the welfare of the colonial natives, to make imperialist exploitation really the white man’s burden. And, of course, he does not hesitate to grant Russia the right to see to it that Finland can never again be used by the Germans. But the Nazis should be used by the Russians to help restore what they have destroyed. In brief, Laski proves at the end of the book what was already obvious at its beginning, that he still “his Majesty’s most loyal oppositionist.”