John Strachey 1941

The American Question

Source: Chapter III of Victor Gollancz (ed), The Betrayal of the Left, published in 1941 by Victor Gollancz Ltd, London. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The most important part of Mr Churchill’s speech of 24 August last was his reference to America. There was a prospect, he said, of the fortunes of the United States and of Great Britain becoming increasingly mixed up together. In this phrase, and in the passages of the speech which surrounded it, Mr Churchill suddenly called attention to the dominant factor in the present world situation. Upon the American question – upon the question, that is to say, of the relationship of the United States of America, potentially the most powerful state in the world, to the other states of the world, and to the British nation in particular – hangs the future.

Mr Churchill, when he said that the affairs of Britain and America might become increasingly mixed up together, was speaking not merely of a prospect. He was describing a process; he was describing a process which was already well under way in the weeks immediately preceding the writing of this article, the last weeks of August. A British Dominion, Canada, participating actively in the present war, has had what are in fact Staff conversations with the United States. At the same time it has been announced that numerous crucially important points in British possessions in the Caribbean, and in the Western Hemisphere generally, are to be leased to America as naval bases. Thirdly, an active struggle is going on in the United States over the question of whether fifty destroyers belonging to the United States Navy are or are not to be put at the disposal of the British government for the prosecution of the war against Germany. Before this article is read this controversy will no doubt have been decided, and, it seems probable, will have been decided in a sense favourable to the despatch of the destroyers.

In America political controversy centres on whether or not these moves in the ‘mixing-up-together’ process will or will not lead to American participation in the present war against Germany. No one, of course, now in this country who is in favour of resistance to the bid of Nazi imperialism to conquer the world can pretend that he is indifferent to the question of whether or not the most powerful state in the world will, in arms, resist that bid. But the Nazis can be resisted in various ways. It is undeniable that in what may be called the middle perspective – in the perspective of the next year or so, that is to say – the question of whether America does or does not declare war on Germany is of an importance that cannot be exaggerated. Curiously enough, however, both for the short perspective – for the perspective of the next few months – and for the perspective of the next few decades, this is not the most important question. In the next few months the most important question is that of the actual volume of material American assistance to this country: the question of the number of planes which are sold, the number of ships which may be sent, the amount of armament and supplies of all sorts which may be obtained. Nor is it clear that a declaration of war would be of decisive assistance in this respect. Again, looking to the decades rather than to the months or years, what has begun to foreshadow itself, both by the acts of Anglo-American cooperation which have already taken place, and still more in the perspective which these acts and the British Prime Minister’s references to them open up, is a form of cooperation more important, in the long run, than the working alliance which would automatically occur should America declare war on Germany.

Such alliances for the purpose of waging a particular war are, of course, a commonplace in the relationship of states. Capitalist empires, in particular, have made such temporary, ad hoc, war alliances again and again. They have by no means signified any lasting cooperation between the two allied powers; still less have they signified any real cordiality in their relationships. But what people, both here and in the United States, feel, rather than consciously think, today is that there is a possibility different from, more significant and more interesting than, any such alliance. People feel that there is a possibility of long-term, permanent and slowly-growing cooperation between the United States and the British Empire. It is the purpose of this article to examine the question of whether or not this feeling is necessarily an illusion, as at first sight most Marxists, for example, would certainly say that it must be. Is it or is it not conceivable that two of the most formidable capitalist empires in the world can reach a basis for long-term cooperation? If it is conceivable, is it desirable? And, if it is both conceivable and desirable, what practical steps would have to be taken in each of these empires to make it come to pass?

Do We Want American Cooperation?

First of all, however, I must take up the simple and immediate issue of whether or not we should welcome or deplore the present tendency for American assistance to Britain to grow. This tendency carries with it the possibility that such assistance will grow into an actual American declaration of war. Naturally our answer to this question will depend entirely upon our general attitude to the war. Those of us who believe that the Nazis must be resisted will welcome American help in resisting them. Those people who are not in favour of resisting the Nazis, so long, at any rate, as the present government is in power in Britain, and those who have not made up their minds upon the point, will take an opposite view. People’s attitude to the question of American help to, and cooperation with, this country will prove, in the coming period, an excellent test of what is a man’s, or a party’s, real opinion on the question of whether or not the Nazis should be resisted. All those men and parties who at heart do not care whether what has happened to the French people should happen to the British people; all those who have persuaded themselves that they do not care whether the Nazis, by a conquest of this country, shall establish securely their empire over the whole of Western and Central Europe; all those who do not realise that the establishment of such a Nazi European Empire would be followed by a Nazi attack upon America or the Soviet Union, or ultimately both, with the possibility that such an attack would succeed and that the Nazis would impose their empire and their ideals on the world as a whole – all such people, but only such people, will show themselves hostile to an increasing volume of American assistance to this country. [1]

Let us be frank. A steadily increasing volume of such American assistance to this country, of which a declaration of war on Germany might or might not be a part, affords the real prospect of breaking the Nazi bid for world power. It is always difficult in time of war to preserve a balanced view of the military situation. Today there seems a danger of a reaction of relief from the desperation of our peril at the end of June last. We are apt to feel so relieved that it has, apparently, proved impracticable for Hitler to assault these islands by direct military invasion (though by the time these words are read the attempt may still have been made), and that his air assault appears to be suffering serious reverses, that the real situation to which those who ruled them between the two wars have led the British people is becoming forgotten in a new access of our national besetting sin of complacency.

And yet it is fantastic that one can even dream of mentioning such a word as complacency, in view of what really faces us in the approaching months and years. Let us write of that situation frankly. Even though it proves quite impossible for Hitler to take these islands by assault, the fact remains that the British people of forty-five millions, enjoying the valuable, but not decisive, help of the Dominions, face the German people of eighty millions, equipped with incomparably the greatest war machine in modern times, and having subjugated the other peoples of Western Europe, and added their industrial potential to the German war machine. It is not courage, it is mere foolishness, to suppose that the Nazi will to subjugate the world can be, not merely checked, but finally broken (as it must be broken, if sooner or later it is not to end the independent existence of the British, American and all other unsubjugated peoples), except by means of an ever-broadening stream of American assistance to this country. That is why, I repeat, the attitude of men and parties to the American question will reveal decisively their real hopes and fears in regard to the war.

Those whose real dread is a Nazi defeat, and a consequent victory for Great Britain, will oppose every extension of American assistance. And let us make no mistake about it. A Nazi defeat, and a consequent British victory, are precisely what a certain school of thought in this country really dreads. This is not an accusation, nor an insult. It is a mere statement of admitted fact. For example, Dr John Lewis said as much, with great clarity, in an article which he contributed, by invitation, to the Left News last month, and in which he defended the ‘line’ of the French and British Communists. By far the most revealing sentence in that article is the one in which Dr Lewis wrote: ‘If they [the governing class of this country] win the war nothing can save the British people from Fascism.’ The more we reflect on that sentence, the more revealing it becomes. We see that Dr Lewis, and those who think like him, do not feel that the main and immediate danger of the establishment of Fascism in Britain consists in the possibility of the defeat and subjugation of Britain by the Nazis. All France has been divided into two parts, the one ruled directly by the German Fascists, and the other ruled indirectly by the German Fascists and directly by the native French puppet Fascists at Vichy. This insignificant little event, consisting in the double subjugation of the French people to Fascism, as a direct result of their defeat by the Nazis, has made not the slightest impression on Dr Lewis. Writing immediately after this event, he solemnly warns us that the danger of the establishment of Fascism here resides in the possibility of a British victory; he warns us, that is to say, that we shall get Fascism if we do not let ourselves be subjugated by the Nazis! Writing when the British people were beset and beleaguered, as they still are, by the relentless assault of the German Fascists; writing when they stood in daily and hourly peril from that assault, Dr Lewis reveals that he is wholly preoccupied with the danger that, in the event of our preventing the German Fascists from subjugating us, we should succumb to a native British Fascism!

People who can write like that must have wholly and totally lost their heads. Loss of sense of proportion and reality could not go farther. Nobody is suggesting, of course, that in the remote possibility of a total and worldwide victory for British imperialism there would not be the further possibility of an attempt on the part of the British imperialists to set up a Fascist regime in this country. All things are possible in human life. But that the opportunity for such an attempt should arise, that the attempt should be made if the opportunity did arise, that, finally, if the opportunity arose and the attempt were made, the attempt should succeed, are, taken together, an hypothesis of extreme remoteness. And yet this is what Dr Lewis tells us that he is worrying about. This is what he was worrying about in the middle of the summer of 1940, when the Nazi knife was at his silly throat.

Fatuousness of this order of magnitude does not arise, especially in well-informed and well-trained minds like Dr Lewis’, without a reason. And the reason is, of course, that he and his friends have performed the astonishing feat of persuading themselves that British imperialism is, almost literally, the sole formidable reactionary force in the world; that Nazi imperialism is either not very strong or not very reactionary (sometimes they imply one, sometimes the other of these unfortunately equally false hypotheses); and that consequently anything, such as increasing American assistance, which strengthens British imperialism is to be deplored. As anyone who has not gone dizzy (though not, to be sure, with success, but with political contortions) can see from one glance at the world situation, British imperialism is neither so strong, nor anything like so reactionary, as Nazi imperialism. The possibility of a total and annihilating world victory for British imperialism is (whether we think this fact fortunate or unfortunate) more remote than the possibility of an annihilating world victory for Nazi imperialism. The consequences of such a total British victory, even if it took place, would be incomparably less reactionary (they might not be, if we all did our jobs well enough, reactionary at all). Therefore, an ever-increasing flow of American assistance to Britain is to be wholeheartedly welcomed and encouraged, as a prerequisite to the salvation of the world from Nazi domination.

American Motives

All this does not mean that we should have illusions about the motives which are actuating the American government, and ruling circles in America generally, in increasing the volume of their assistance to this country, or the motive which would actuate them in the event of their declaring war on Germany. On the contrary, it is our duty as Socialists to analyse the world situation as calmly, coldly and realistically as we are able. The more we are tossed and tumbled in the tumultuous waves of this second world conflict, the more it is our duty to strive to keep our heads and see things as they are.

The motives which are actuating the American government in assisting the British government seem to me to be as follows. First the American government fears the Nazi imperialists. They believe, and they are right, that if the Nazis succeed in completing and establishing their conquest of the Old World, by means of the subjugation of the British Isles, they will become a deadly menace to the United States. This simple motive of self-preservation is the strongest influence in America today. On the whole, and above all, America is helping us, and may fight on our side, from the simple, natural and, to my mind, wholly justified, motive of self-preservation. In one aspect, but not the decisively important aspect today, this may no doubt be called the expression of an American imperialist antagonism to German imperialism. But what will be the consequence to the world if this motive of self-preservation amongst the American governing class, and, for that matter, the American people generally, is overruled? Let us reflect on what will happen if, as a substantial minority of American opinion of all classes desires, assistance to this country is so largely withheld that in the long run a Nazified Europe is able to wear down and to bear down British resistance. Let us reflect upon what will happen if we suffer the fate of France, and the Nazis become the rulers of all Central and Western Europe. Can there be any doubt that, if this should take place, any American government which had allowed it to take place would hasten to come to terms with the Nazis? The American isolationists, who would have imposed such a policy on their country, and who would therefore be in power, would, in the nature of things, have to hasten to do a Munich on a world scale, a Munich which would make the Czech deal of 1938 seem like a Nazi defeat. Indeed, it is almost impossible to see how anything could possibly result from the joint triumph of the isolationists in America, and Hitler in Europe, except a deal by which, for the time being, Hitler did one of his periodic renunciations and left America in the control of the Western Hemisphere, thus bringing into his hands the unchallenged control of much of the rest of the world.

I suppose we shall be told that such a development would be no threat to the existence of the Soviet Union; that the German-Soviet Pact of 1939 would provide perfect security to the Soviet Union against the attack of a Nazi empire which had subdued all Europe, including Britain, and which had come to a complete working agreement with the United States. The fact is, of course, that once world development had taken this path, a Nazi domination of the Soviet Union would become inevitable. Is this really what we should work with Father Coughlan, the American Fascists and the old guard of the Republican Party, to achieve?

The second motive which actuates the American government, and wide sections of the American people, in assisting us is the fact that Great Britain and the United States are today countries of a similar kind. They are, that is to say, capitalist democracies. They differ widely in many of their institutions, habits of mind and ways of life. Nevertheless, as compared to their differences with countries of a different kind – for example, Socialist countries such as the Soviet Union, or Fascist countries such as Germany – they are similar; and this similarity breeds genuine sympathy and an impulse towards mutual assistance. Again, in the special case of Britain and America; a common language and a common racial origin (it should be needless to say that I do not mean racial in the Nazi pseudo-scientific sense, but simply that the ancestors of the most important section of the American people came from the British Isles) increase this tendency. It is just as unrealistic to ignore this ideological and, in the best sense of that word, sentimental factor in the situation as to suppose that this is the basic factor. It is not the basic factor; nevertheless, if, in an attempt to be ‘scientific’, ‘hard-boiled’ and all the rest of it, we ignore it, we shall end up by being neither ‘scientific’ nor ‘hard-boiled’, but, quite simply, wrong. Ideological and mental facts are facts. They have their own weight, which has to be assessed as accurately as we can. To ignore them and to pretend they are not there because they are mental facts is to be grossly mechanistic.

The third reason which actuates the American government is a desire on the part of American capitalists and, I think it is true to say, certain sections of the American people, to assume a leading role in the world. The United States is potentially the most powerful state in the world, and her great industrialists, bankers and, for that matter, a good many other Americans in a humbler position, would like to enjoy those profits, privileges, fields of investment, assured access to raw materials, opportunities to exploit subject peoples, prestige, honours and glories – in a word, those usual imperialist advantages – which the assumption of a leading place in the world would undoubtedly give them. This is the positive side of American imperialism.

For the moment, and on the whole, this impulse towards American world leadership motivates the American government in favour of helping Great Britain and opposing Nazi Germany. For American imperialist statesmen, not having become bereft, like some people, of common understanding, can see that Nazi imperialism, far more than British imperialism, is their most dangerous rival today. But, of course, it is quite true that in other circumstances and in a new situation this motive may turn the other way and tend to impel the American government to oppose Great Britain.

In real life, of course, all these three motives are inextricably interconnected. But their net result has been, so far at any rate, slowly, with difficulty, and encountering heavy internal opposition from a minority which they do not affect, to cause the American government to give an increasing flow of assistance to Great Britain.

The Internal Struggle in America

Let us now look into the internal American situation today. For the present tendency to increase assistance to, and cooperation with, this country is the result of the balance of forces in America. There are plenty of people with plenty of influence in the United States who, for one reason or another, are against the giving of that increasing assistance and cooperation. In this connection also a grossly distorted and over-simplified picture is being presented by Communist writers. We are told that the whole American governing class has now become one solid reactionary bloc, intent on ‘dragging America into the war’ and pursuing a policy of black reaction at home. In particular we are told that Roosevelt and the New Dealers, who have just reasserted their position in the Democratic Party, have done a complete volte face; that whereas they were up to the war a progressive force (this can hardly be denied, as they were actively and warmly supported by the Communist Party of the United States), they have now become the leaders of American reaction; that ‘the New Deal is being dismantled'; that all its beneficial reforms are being repealed; that a repressive and persecuting regime, no whit, it is implied, better than that of the Gestapo, is being established throughout the Union. All this is the merest vapourings. The truth is that the main body of the American capitalist class is at the moment bitterly attacking Roosevelt and the New Dealers for their refusal, the capitalists say, to modify the New Deal even in the slightest degree. The Roosevelt administration is accused of refusing to modify one of its reforms, even when some of the New Deal measures are said to be standing in the way of National Defence preparations. This accusation is itself an exaggeration, of course.

There does exist a formidable reactionary trend in America today, such as usually occurs after a great forward surge of the progressive forces, of the kind that has taken place in America during the past eight years. Some of the New Deal reforms are in danger of emasculation at the hand of Congress. But it is not true that Roosevelt and the New Dealers are leading and encouraging this reactionary drive. On the contrary, they are putting up the only effective opposition to it. It is very difficult to follow closely the ebb and flow of this struggle from across the Atlantic, but, on the whole, the prospects of preserving the main progressive achievements of the two Roosevelt administrations appear to be good if – but only if – the New Dealers retain power. The Labour Relations, or Wagner, Act, which is the effective charter of trades unionism in America, the vital Act under the aegis of which, it is hardly too much to say, the great CIO unions have been built up, is in danger. The Smith Bill has, as I write, passed one House of Congress, but not the other, and this Bill, unless amendments, which are under discussion at present, are passed, would seriously diminish the efficacy of the protection which the CIO unions enjoy under the Wagner Act. This is true. But it is not by rounding on the very forces which passed the Wagner Act, and which are at present defending it, and calling them ‘the spearhead of American reaction’, that this vitally important enactment will be preserved. A similar struggle is being waged around many of the other social reforms of the New Deal period, the Wages and Hours Act, the various social insurance acts, and such matters. It is impossible in this country to follow the details of the struggles over each of these measures. But one thing is certain: the American Fascists, the Coughlanites, the old guard of the Republican Party and the other isolationist forces are not the people who will save these measures.

The other and, to my mind, more important side of the New Deal programme consisted in the so-called ‘lend-spend’ measures, by which it was sought to keep up the level of employment. What has happened in this case is that the government borrowing and expenditure have been switched from public works to armament production. The economic effects will be very similar. It makes very little difference whether you spend a billion dollars on roads, bridges and parkways, or on battleships and aircraft. A similar number of men, dollar for dollar, will be employed. A similar amount of new purchasing power will be put into the hands of the population. A similar amount of indirect employment will be given, by repercussion, as this new money comes to be spent. It is pure nonsense to suggest that, while the New Deal public works expenditure was beneficial and raised the standard of life, the present expenditure on armaments will decrease the standard of life.

The difference between the two objects of expenditure is, of course, that for the present programme you will get battleships and bombers instead of bridges and parkways. But the bridges and parkways were never the important thing about the lend-spend programme. The important thing was the indirect effect on purchasing power which the expenditure had. Men, and political parties, will, of course, approve or disapprove of the switching of expenditure to armament-building, according to whether they approve or disapprove of the United States government appeasing the Nazi imperialists. Only those who are at heart in favour of the United States doing a gigantic world deal with the Nazis have the right to oppose American rearmament. For unless America rearms, it is perfectly obvious that she will have to come to terms with the Nazis. I ask every member of both the British and American Communist Parties this question: are they or are they not in favour of the United States government coming to terms with the Nazis? If they are not in favour of it, do they deny the necessity of the American people having arms available with which to defend themselves against Nazi attack? This is an even simpler question than the question of American assistance to, and cooperation with, this country. For the American people will still need arms – indeed, they will need ten times as many arms – if the Nazis are enabled by American isolationism to conquer this country.

The Snapping of the Links

We shall be told, of course, that the American people are being led by Mr Roosevelt, not to oppose Nazi imperialism, but towards aggression on behalf of American imperialism, or on behalf of a joint Anglo-American imperialism. In particular, we shall be told that the point of American preparedness propaganda is directed not only – and some would continue, though quite untruly, not principally – against Nazi imperialism, but against the Soviet Union. Now it is, unfortunately, quite true that there is plenty of anti-Sovietism in the United States at the present moment. Not so much the Soviet-Nazi Pact in itself as the world policy of the Communist International, as applied by the Communist Party of the United States, has given a golden opportunity for the mobilisation of American opinion against the Soviet Union.

By far the most startling example of this process is afforded by the news that the United Auto Workers of America have just passed an anti-Soviet resolution. To anyone who knows the history of this great, vigorous and successful trade union, this is startling news. It is not too much to say that up till quite recently the Communist Party of America had a predominating influence in this great new union. A bitter internal struggle was fought out between a body of able, responsible and vigorous leaders, some of whom were members of the Communist Party, and almost all of whom were in close accord with that party, and the Secretary of the union, Mr Homer Martin. Homer Martin had fallen under the influence of Lovestone, an ex-member of the American Communist Party, who, over ten years ago, split away and became one of that party’s bitterest, most unscrupulous and most unjustified enemies. This struggle ended with the defeat of Homer Martin, and it seemed clear that the Communist International had managed to secure what it has always lacked in all the countries of the West, a predominating influence in at least one genuine mass organisation.

Indeed, no success could have been more important than the securing of an influential position in the United Auto Workers. The American automobile industry is the greatest and largest industry in the world. The Auto Workers Union may well become the greatest trade union in the world. It was a fact of world significance that the best, most capable, most honest and most courageous leaders of the Auto Workers were either Communists or followed the Communist lead. The passage of this anti-Soviet resolution by the United Auto Workers must, I presume (unless – which is possible, though it seems unlikely – further news should modify the significance of the event), mean that this influence has been destroyed. Here is a most serious confirmation of the warning that some of us have repeatedly given in the past months. We have said that, whatever were the arguments by which the present line of the Communist International might be justified, it would end by snapping the slowly growing links between the Communist parties of the Western nations and the working masses of those nations. No warning has been more totally disregarded nor more violently denied than this. Yet here we find the snapping of what was, on the whole, the most important link which the Communist International had established with a mass organisation in the West.

And yet I feel confident that this event also will be totally disregarded. I foretell that those of us who point out what is happening will be violently attacked for doing so. It will be said that we are supporting the United Auto Workers in their anti-Soviet line, and glorying in the adoption of that line. I take this opportunity of refuting, in advance, this allegation. I deplore the passing of this resolution by the United Auto Workers. I am here pointing out that the disastrous effects, which I foretold, of the present world line of the Communist International are now becoming apparent. It is, of course, open to the supporters of the present line of the Communist International to say that these consequences, by way of the snapping of links with great mass organisations such as the United Auto Workers, are the inevitable price which has to be paid for a correct world line. I do not in the least agree with this view; but it is, at any rate, a comprehensible one. But for goodness’ sake do not let anyone say any longer that a price has not been paid, or that these links are not being snapped.

I am not for a moment suggesting that these deplorable events should make us disregard or minimise the strength of the reactionary drive in the United States at the present time. The lesson they should teach us is that today, more than ever before, that reactionary drive can only be met by a policy based on a People’s Front conception – by the unity of all American progressive forces, including the New Dealers. If we are told that the New Dealers are no longer a progressive force, but that, on the contrary, it is the isolationists, from Father Coughlan to the old guard of the Republican Party, who are today objectively the progressives, then I must say that people who can take such a view show that they are no longer able to distinguish healthy from diseased elements in public life.

The Theoretical Lesson

There is a vital theoretical lesson to be drawn from the present phase of growing Anglo-American cooperation. As to the fact of that growing cooperation there is, after all, no dispute. Indeed, Communists actually exaggerate the extent of that cooperation when they are denouncing it as an attempt to drag the American people into war. But the very existence of this tendency towards cooperation of a long-term kind, involving such measures as a willingness on the part of British imperialism to (in fact) cede naval bases all over the Caribbean to America, and thus permanently alter the balance of power between the two empires, is a challenge to our thinking. This tendency towards something more significant than the usual temporary war alliance between two empires ought to lead us to a careful re-examination of our analysis of the world situation. It has been a foundation stone of recent Marxist analysis, a foundation stone the laying of which is particularly associated with the name of RP Dutt, that on the whole the most important factor in the world situation, the factor which underlay everything else, was the antagonism between the American and British Empires. These, it was argued, were the two dominating capitalist world powers. Therefore it was inevitable that they should be rivals. They were the greatest world powers; therefore their antagonism and rivalry would be the greatest and the deepest. It is hardly too much to say that much of the world outlook and the world policy of the Communist International has been based upon this view. Anglo-German rivalry was seen as, on the whole, something subsidiary to it, as something which would be resolved without final conflict. Anglo-German antagonism would be resolved without decisive conflict not only because of the British desire for a common front against the Soviet Union, but also because of the British desire for a common front against the United States. It was felt that all English-speaking-union talk, all talk of a community of interests between Britain and America was, so long as they remained capitalist empires, absurd nonsense. It was felt that the one thing which could not happen was any significant degree of Anglo-American cooperation.

Well, it is simply not working out that way. The Anglo-German antagonism was not superseded and overshadowed. It did produce decisive conflict. Antagonism between the British and American Empires, while real enough, has not resulted in decisive conflict, and has not made impossible a growing degree of cooperation. All this does not in the least invalidate the basic Marxist view that rival capitalist empires cannot finally solve their antagonisms until and unless they cease to be rival capitalist empires. Unquestionably this is the case. But it does mean that we have slipped up in the supremely difficult task of applying this general theory to the immense complexities of the present world situation. There is nothing very surprising about that. Marxism, as Marxists always stress, is not some rule of thumb by means of which all the answers can be found by looking them up at the end of the book. Marxism is a guide to action; but it is a guide which does not relieve us of the duty and necessity to show the greatest discrimination and care in its application. We now see that it was an over-simplified, mechanistic view to suppose that, because Britain and America were the two greatest capitalist empires, their antagonism must be the greatest and deepest and must govern the general world situation.

It is neither surprising nor alarming that such mistakes should be made. But what is alarming is to notice that there is not the slightest sign of any recognition of a need to revise former views in this connection. It is not, I repeat, that the fact of growing Anglo-American cooperation is denied. Communist spokesmen indeed stress this fact. But it is stressed merely to be denounced with a special venom. One almost gets the impression that leading spokesmen of the International regard the signs of the growing Anglo-American cooperation as something specially outrageous, because unnatural; as something that ought not to have the audacity to take place, because they have consistently denied that it ever could take place; as something positively scandalous which must be stopped at all costs in order to make the facts conform to their theory.

A sufficiently objective and careful application of the fundamental Marxist-Leninist theory of inter-imperial antagonisms to the present phase of growing Anglo-American cooperation would not, however, reveal a conflict between theory and practice. But what it would reveal is a profound conflict between the facts of world development and an increasing tendency to over-simplify, mechanise and therefore debase the theory of inter-imperialist antagonisms. All that present events show, so far at any rate, is that even so important and profound an antagonism as that between the British and American Empires can be overruled at a specific, and all-important, time by other factors. Anglo-American antagonism, which, of course, exists, and always must exist so long as both communities are profit-seeking, class-dominated capitalist empires, has been pushed into the background for the moment by the factors which I have mentioned above. It has been pushed into the background partly by other inter-imperialist antagonisms, such as both the British and American fear of the Nazi imperialists, and also of the Japanese imperialists. The possibility of this sort of criss-crossing of imperialist antagonism is, of course, fully admitted in theory, though it has been seriously overlooked in practice in this case. But there are other factors at work here. It is a crass error, I repeat, to neglect the ideological factors, the factors which tend towards Anglo-American cooperation and which render latent the basic antagonism between the interests of British capital and American capital.

Unless these factors are seen and given their full importance, our estimate of the resolution of forces goes astray, and we begin to make errors in our attempt to predict the actual trend of events and to base our policy upon that trend.

A People’s America and a People’s Britain

Such is the main theoretical lesson to be learnt from the present development in Anglo-American relations. The short-run practical deduction to be made by all those who wish to prevent the total victory of Nazi imperialism, the subjugation of Europe, and probably of the world, to the Nazi ideology, is to welcome the growth of Anglo-American cooperation as a simple necessity for the independent existence of the two peoples today. That will not blind us to the remote, theoretical, but yet possible, danger that at some time in the future there may be an attempt on the part of a joint Anglo-American imperialism to impose a reactionary regime on the world after a total victory over its imperialist rivals. Such a danger is conceivable; but to compare it to the danger of a total Nazi conquest of the world today is ludicrous. To be frank, it seems to me decidedly premature to speculate about the world situation which would arise in the event of an Anglo-American victory. Anglo-American cooperation has to be developed in the face of enormous difficulties very much farther than it has gone at present, and then the actual breaking of the power of Nazi imperialism has to take place before those chickens can be hatched. And I for one have little disposition to begin counting them now. But if there are people who are nervous lest the chickens of such a victory should turn into imperialist eagles, let them consider two points.

First, in the event of the breaking of the Nazi will to dominate the world, and if in the process both British and American imperialism remain unmodified, then the antagonism between them would undoubtedly reappear very strongly. It really would be to throw the baby of the irrefutable Marxist analysis of world affairs out with the bath-water of the mechanistic over-simplification of that theory, to suggest that in those circumstances the British and American imperialists could easily and simply establish a world condominium; that they would not find themselves to be rivals as well as allies.

But the second consideration is much the more important. The real point is that it is both grossly unscientific and grossly defeatist to consider either America or Britain as static, unchangeable, capitalist world empires. To do so would be a cardinal instance of that failure which Marxists rightly denounce so often – a failure to see history dynamically and as a process, in its becoming rather than in its being. Of course, Britain and America are capitalist world empires, but they need not remain so. The balance of class forces within them is not fixed for all time. It is changing before our eyes, despite all difficulties, setbacks and disasters. The people’s struggle within Britain and America provides the real way out for the British and American peoples.

Nor is there anything whatever in an ever-increasing degree of Anglo-American cooperation which need weaken that people’s struggle. On the contrary, such increasing cooperation can be made enormously to strengthen and reinvigorate the people’s forces on both sides of the Atlantic. What we have to do is to make use of the fact that the ruling classes of Britain and America have been driven, by no means entirely voluntarily, to promote a closer understanding between Britain and America. If the popular forces are strong enough, that cooperation can become a cooperation of the British and American peoples for their peaceful and progressive ends, instead of a cooperation between British and American capitalist imperialism for ends of joint aggression and domination. Of course, there is no guarantee that such a people’s struggle will win; there never is; but that is the one road that leads forward.

To overlook these possibilities of change and modification in the balance of class forces, in the economic structures, and therefore in the very natures of Britain and America, is to fall into a basic error from the effects of which, I am every day more convinced, the working-class cause all over the world today is suffering. It is to fall into the error of slurring over the differences between the capitalist democracies and the Fascist dictatorships. This error arises from a gross underestimation of Fascism. It arises from an underestimation both of the strength and of the vileness of Fascism. It was precisely this error which crippled and brought to nought the struggle of the German Communist Party before 1933. (And if anyone tells me that in saying this I am ‘putting the blame’ for the rise of Hitler on the German Communists instead of on the German Social Democrats, or excusing the poltroonery and turpitude of the Social Democrats in any way, or denying the gallantry and admirable intentions of the German Communists, I can only say that such people are either unwilling to understand, or incapable of understanding, plain English. For this, of course, is what is being said in connection with recent discussions over the French Communist Party. Anyone who suggests that it is now obvious that the French Communist Party made a fatal mistake in adopting its anti-war line is accused of apologising for Pétain, or, at any rate, for Blum.)

Now, we have seen precisely the same madness projected on a world scale. Just as we were told before 1933 that the Nazis could not take power, that if they did take power they could solve none of Germany’s economic problems, that consequently they would hold power only for a few months, so now we are being told that the Nazis’ bid for world domination cannot possibly succeed, that the Nazis cannot establish a world reactionary regime, etc, etc. Political parties, it has been well said, never learn anything from their mistakes. They relapse into mere fury when these mistakes are pointed out to them. But parties, as well as species, which learn nothing from experience become extinct.

At any rate, those of us who are determined to learn from experience before it is too late are no longer willing, as we have been for all too long, to be guided by men who, however brilliant, have, experience has now shown, a fundamentally distorted view of the world situation. We must make up our minds, above all, about this American question. For the American question is undoubtedly fundamental to the whole world situation. For my part, I have not the slightest hesitation in concluding that an ever-increasing degree of Anglo-American cooperation, while it will, like everything else in this world, bring its own dangers with it, will bring not only indispensable help in resisting the Nazi assault, but also vast new allies to the British people’s struggle. New, vigorous, rising working-class and popular forces exist in the United States. Our imperative duty is not to attempt to prevent the growth of Anglo-American cooperation, but to coordinate these American popular forces with our own, so that as the process of mixing up together takes place it will be, not the capital, but the peoples, of Britain and America, who clasp hands.


1. The whole of this paragraph, and the words ‘do not care’ in particular, as well as some other statements in this chapter, must be read side by side with the explanation of defeatism given in Chapter I, and, especially, Chapter IV. No Communist ‘does not care’ whether what has happened to the French people should happen to us; but (a) he cares for it far less than for his plan to create international revolution by means of defeatism, and (b) he has persuaded himself that defeatism is the best way to prevent what has happened to France happening to us. [This refers to Victor Gollancz’s articles ‘Where Are You Going?’ and ‘“Revolutionary Defeatism” and Its Development in CP Policy’, Chapters I and IV of The Betrayal of the Left – MIA.]