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The Pacifist's Dilemma | The Nation

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The Pacifist's Dilemma

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New Year's bells rang in the definite and open beginning of a naval race which is immediately of staggering cost and potentially far more likely to prepare the way for new war than peace. But as the old year closed, the great American protagonist of that race, President Roosevelt, fresh from a considerable triumph for international good-will on the Western Hemisphere, waxed caustic in condemning the sale of certain implements of war to the recognized Spanish government. Those who defended that sale were for the most part bitter opponents of the naval race and long-time foes of the international trade in armaments. This is but one example of the inconsistencies, or seeming inconsistencies, in a mad world. Rarely, if ever, has the struggle for peace been so complicated, or have the lovers of peace been more sharply divided. They are caught in the confusion of a world more keenly aware than ever before of the suicidal costs of world war, yet more inclined to accept it as inevitable.

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The whole issue has been immensely complicated by the triumph of fascism in Italy and more especially in Germany. Fascism glorifies both militarism and war. It is as surely a menace to the peace as to the liberty of mankind. One may be against both war and fascism, and yet find in every dispatch from Spain grim proof that practically, under conditions all too likely to occur again and again, resolute and effective opposition to fascism means war. Is it any wonder that in this kind of world consistency among peace lovers is not a common virtue?

Among the enemies of both war and fascism are two groups which at first sight seem more consistent than the rest of us. There are on the one hand those pacifists who hold that the great commandment can be summed up in this: "Thou shalt take no part in any kind of war." On the other hand there are those advocates of collective security who proclaim a holy crusade of democratic nations against fascist aggressors. Both groups are more successful in criticizing their extreme opponents than in supporting their own positions. For neither group have we invented an accurate name. To the first I shall apply the word "pacifist," pausing only to remind my readers that there are pacifists and pacifists. The best pacifists are not passivists, individuals concerned only with their own soul's salvation or believers in divide intervention in behalf of the martyrs of peace. The pacifists can point out that history furnishes melancholy justification for their successive contentions: (1) that the right sort of America could have used its immense social and moral power to bring about a negotiated peace instead of entering the World War; (2) that the peace of Versailles was a peace to end peace; and (3) that reasonable concessions in the days when Stresemann and the Social Democrats were still strong in Germany would have greatly increased the chances of victory for the republic against militarism and fascism. Today these pacifists can make no equally practical suggestion in the struggle against fascist aggression, but at least we owe them something for their constant challenge to the method of war and their constant reminder of its bitter cost.

Nevertheless, the pacifism which makes mere abstention from war the supreme command will not deliver mankind from new cycles of war and new dark ages of oppression. It is unrealistic and mad to say that it does not matter who wins in Spain if only the guns are stilled. It matters profoundly not only for Spain but for mankind that the fascist aggression of which Franco is the nominal and brutal leader be defeated. Persons who believe this must support the gallant resistance of the workers and other loyalists.

Those who cannot accept pacifism as the first and last commandment are not therefore the foes of peace. Indeed, the advocates of one form or another of "collective security" speak as its champions. Originally they sought to unite the world against the aggressor nation or nations. They reasoned that if the certainty of united action were great enough, a would-be aggressor would shrink from putting his fortunes to the test of war or even from facing those economic sanctions which the more optimistic believed might serve as a substitute for war. Now—and the change in itself signifies the historical failure of collective security through the League of Nations&emdash;those who consider themselves "realists" in contradistinction to "pacifists" pin their hopes on an alliance of "democratic" states against realms ruled by dictators.

In a powerful and eloquent little book "We or They," an American citizen sees two worlds in conflict— theworld of democracy and the world of dictatorship. In the second he places the Soviet Union. Hamilton Fish Armstrong is, to be sure, aware of the differences as well as resemblances between fascism and communism. In my judgment he understates the differences, but certainly in terms of practical politics an organization of the democracies against the dictators which must begin with bitter controversy concerning the place of mighty Russia scarcely solves any major problem of world peace. Nevertheless, Mr. Armstrong and the school for which he is a persuasive spokesman makes us face a dilemma which Americans cannot escape by mere opposition to war or any feasible degree of isolation.

What then? Shall intelligent Americans seek to build a league of non-fascist states with the definite object of checking fascist aggression, if necessary by preventive war, before German rearmament has gone farther and the continuous advance of science has made war even more deadly? There would be logic in that, but advocates of collective security usually reject it. It is a tribute to Mr. Armstrong's candor that he goes farther and doubts whether liberalism can stand the compulsions which war would put upon it. Yet he favors a form of "international insurance" which, if it means anything, means military alliance, actual or tacit, among the democratic nations.

Objections to this course of action fairly leap to one's mind. Why should such an alliance, especially if it tentatively places Russia outside its fold, succeed where the League of Nations has egregiously failed? The conduct of all nations, our own included, proves that such an alliance would not diminish the weight of competitive armament but would cause each nation to arm the more frantically, not only against fascism but to guarantee its position in the councils of its allies. Even without war this race in militarism would jeopardize whatever democracy we had left. The minute war was declared, America would become a fascist state or a military despotism. This is the calm assumption underlying the War Department's plans for military mobilization. Moreover, a declaration of war in capitalist America would not initiate a new struggle to make the world safe for democracy any more truly than when Congress declared war on April 6, 1917. Ideals would have their place in inducing the American people to accept a new war, but the primary motive would not be, as the Communists hope, a desire to protect Soviet Russia or, as Mr. Armstrong hopes, a desire to preserve democracy. It would be a desire, intelligent or futile, to further national economic interests.

The whole theory of an effective alliance of capitalist states in behalf of democracy is discredited by each day's news. It is not likely that any clearer case for joint action against fascism will ever present itself than the fascist rebellion in Spain. Yet Blum was afraid to act, partly because he feared a fascist rising at home and partly because he could get no support from the British Foreign Office. To this day that great "democracy" over which Stanley Baldwin presides has no clear policy. British mining interests in Spain were original supporters of Franco's revolt. The instinctive sentiment of the ruling class was on the side of the fascists. No abstract love of democracy moves the British government in its growing fear of fascism in Spain but rather reflection on the danger that would threaten the Empire and its precious life line through the Mediterranean should Italy or Germany, or both, gain a commanding position in Spain.

It is facts like these, added to the long and melancholy story of the failures of the League of Nations, which make us challenge the assumption of "two worlds in conflict." There is, indeed, a conflict between dictatorship and democracy—even the bourgeois democracy with which we are familiar. But fascism itself is not basically a conspiracy of wicked dictators against democracy. It is a logical stage of development of the ideals and institutions of capitalism and nationalism. They made the first world war. They made the peace of Versailles. They plowed the soil in which Hitler sowed the seeds of his tribal fascism. Loyalty to democracy, even bourgeois democracy, may well be invoked in the struggle against fascism. But at best it can only win a temporary victory. The essential struggle is still socialism against capitalism, not democracy against fascism. Power-driven machinery has forced a high degree of collectivism upon us. The great problem for workers throughout the world is whether they can make that collective cooperative and achieve the genuine democracy of socialism, or whether they must ultimately accept the rule of a dictator.

It is preposterous to think that the workers in the United States, in the supreme emergency of war, can maneuver the capitalist state and its military organization to gain their own ends. They may conceivably act as a brake on the state and mobilize effectively against war; they cannot utilize an international war to achieve a workers' victory unless first their country's military machine has met crushing defeat. But the practical conclusion from these considerations is not that the United States should seek ostrich-like isolation. It is that in capitalist America it is mad utopianism to believe that the government can be armed for international war against fascist aggression or can enter such a war at a price tolerable the American people or to mankind. It is far more feasible for the workers and all lovers of peace to try to keep America out of the pursuit of war profits and hence out of war, and in the comparative sanity of this condition to see that it uses its influence for peace. This is the case for making neutrality and an embargo on the export of war supplies the American rule in all international struggles. It is the case against American participation in the new naval race.

The action of sincere and qualified volunteers who are willing to risk their own lives in the struggle in Spain is a different matter. They are investing their own lives, not conscripting others or involving the government. They are of a long line of men who have said with Tom Paine: "Where liberty is not, there is my fatherland." Those sanctions and economic pressures which can be applied by unofficial groups do not fall under the condemnation of the attempt to make capitalist America an armed guarantor of peace.

Moreover, a belief in the wisdom of neutrality as the fixed policy of the United States in international war—with exceptions to be made by Congress, not by the President—does not mean that a friendly, democratically elected government, such as that of Spain, must be denied access to supplies necessary to put down armed fascist rebellion. It is an ugly world in which anti-fascist forces must pay tribute to private profiteers for the arms of defense. Yet the one outstanding chance of changing that world lies for the moment in preserving for the Spanish government the right to those forms of help which under international law governments extend to one another. To preserve it does not compel the United States to use its navy directly or indirectly to guarantee shipments, nor does it involve this nation in risk of war. To deny it is not only a discriminatory act, deliberate support of the rebel cause; it is also a reversal of accepted American practice. The United States has not prevented the sale of arms to the Nanking government for use in the slaughter of workers and in civil war against the Chinese red army, or to Latin American dictators engaged in suppressing rebellions. It has invoked this policy for the first time in a civil war to keep arms from the government of Spain—a tragic misapplication of the principle of neutrality.

Not a method of keeping out of war but the establishment of a warless world must be our goal.

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