The Communist Conspiracy
The Struggle for the World.
by James Burnham.
New York, John Day, 1947. 248 pp. $3.00.
James Burnham has a regrettable knack for proceeding with inexorable logic from major premises which are almost correct, by way of minor premises a little less sound, to conclusions which are largely wrong.
Thus, he recognizes and clearly laments the fact that in contemporary political life the traditional values of Western civilization are shot to hell, despite the widespread lip-service which they receive. He is particularly distressed when the Communists reap the benefit of this almost unanimous agreement to accept the validity of moral principles but leave their realization to some future date, while, in the name of “science” and “pragmatism” and “realism” and a hundred other euphemisms, all immediate and pressing problems are solved in accordance with the good old law of tooth and claw.
But in his very justifiable antipathy to Communism—which certainly represents the most dangerous single form of political amorality in the world today—Mr. Burnham permits himself a sort of perverse and devil-worshipping idealization of the Communists which warps both his insight and his own political morals.
To some extent, this weakness shows itself even in his analysis of the nature of the Communist movement. For he credits the masters of the CP machine with a devotion to revolutionary aims which certainly belongs to the distant past. For them, the CP’s function as the Russian state party has long been the only one that mattered, and Mr. Burnham would have done well to apply his proclaimed distrust of words to the interpretation of the CP’s more revolutionary pronouncements.
This is not to deny that the mass of the CP membership in every country still does have a certain loyalty to the revolutionary ideal—perverted and distorted in the direction of the terrorist and dictatorial model existing in Russia, yet not altogether alien to the original idealism which in some sense Mr. Burnham also shares. Most rank-and-file Communists do tend to explain every swing to the Right as a tactic and welcome every swing to the Left as a chance to fulfill the true purposes of the party. (Fellow-travellers are different: they belong to the line of the moment, and hence they are apt to be more numerous whenever that line is less inconvenient.) It is this revolutionary ardor of ordinary Communists that is responsible for the dynamic character of their loyalty to the foreign state which they regard as the embodiment of their ideals. But these ideals show no signs of infecting those who determine the policies of that state.
Burnham credits the Communists, too, with greater wisdom than their success would seem to justify—and, indeed, with successes which they have not in fact achieved. Thus events have contradicted his description of the results of the Soviet occupation of North Iran, since the puppet government collapsed as soon as the Red Army withdrew. And, contrary to his assertion, the Moscow Free Germany Committee never succeeded in making any appreciable inroads into the ranks of non-Communist German exiles. Similarly, he attributes to the CP more strength in the American trade union movement than it actually possesses, and credits it with gains at a time when it is in fact suffering serious losses. (Indeed, it is perhaps worth noting that there are very few countries in which the Communist Party has as large a popular following today as it did twenty-five years ago.)
The same weakness is apparent in Burnham’s discussion of American foreign policy. He is right enough in condemning the failure of the United States to develop a consistent and positive policy, and particularly its ineffable un-wisdom in surrendering one key point after another to Stalin at a time when all the cards were in American hands. Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam were just as much Russian victories as Stalingrad—only they were victories over Russia’s allies. But Burnham’s explanation of this country’s diplomatic defeats, and of its difficulties in arriving at a foreign policy, is both strangely naive and sharply at variance with the facts. He blames everything on a peculiar American immaturity that prevents the United States from taking the role of world leadership its power requires of it. The level of political knowledge in the United States is certainly a great deal lower than it should be, but when Mr. Burnham says that it “is lower than that of any other nation,” he is talking unadulterated nonsense.
He declares: “To an informed Russian or Englishman or Brazilian, it must seem incredible that tens of millions of the citizens of the United States guide their political sense by columnists and radio speakers educated by years of scandal-mongering, sports writing, or cigar salesmanship.” It seems incredible to an informed American, too, but I submit that even Walter Winchell is at least no worse as a political guide than David Zaslavsky—and there are other newspaper and radio commentators whom Americans may seek. They even may, and some of them do, read the New York Times or COMMENTARY, neither of which has any precise equivalent in the Soviet Union.
As a matter of fact, the level of political knowledge in the United States was considerably higher than in most of Europe even before the war, and the scales have been heavily weighted in favor of this country by subsequent developments. Mr. Burnham could find that out soon enough if he took the trouble to read the foreign press, most of which is incredibly full of misinformation. (Even in England, where the press is relatively good, the Sunday paper with the largest circulation is Reynolds News, which combines the politics of PM on its worse days with the general standards of the Hearst papers.)
But despite its numerous inaccuracies, Burn-ham’s analysis of the world situation today is correct enough in its broad outlines. The same cannot be said for his positive proposals. He is on firm ground in calling for a democratic world order capable of defending its members against Soviet inroads, and of eventually extending freedom even to the Russian people themselves. But he confuses the issue by emphasizing repeatedly that this world order is to be founded on the superior force available to the United States, and that it will therefore be an empire rather than a truly democratic world government. Objectively, it might be to some extent an empire—but no more so than the continental United States in which New York and Pennsylvania hold Wisconsin and Montana tributary. The juridical equality of its parts—and the real equality of its citizens—are both possible and desirable. (It is interesting to note that one of the most intelligent plans for achieving such an order was advanced a couple of years ago by no less than a person than Colonel McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, who suggested, that this country invite all the nations of Europe to join it as states. There would, I think, be few which would not take advantage of the opportunity!)
Similarly inadequate is Burnham’s proposal—central to his whole program—that the United States retain a monopoly of atomic weapons as the only way to avoid atomic war. He himself points out the impossibility of maintaining this monopoly for more than a few years; he indicates, too, that the chances of carrying through the policy he proposes within that time are negligible. And he recognizes that germ warfare—for which preparations may be carried on in secrecy and without any need for large-scale installations such as are involved in the mass production of atomic bombs—may be quite as devastating as atomic warfare. How, then, can it be anything but illusory to rely on the preservation of this country’s present superiority in atomic weapons as a crucial element in the development of a foreign policy?
This does not mean that Burnham is wrong in insisting that the United States must take a firm position against further encroachment by the Soviet Union on the freedom of those territories which it has not yet absorbed. Such resistance must be carried through on the economic and ideological fronts. Whether it must, if necessary, be carried through on the battlefield as well is not the question which counts just now; for the Soviet Union is not, and will not be for some years, in a position to wage war. Until it is, there will be no war, whatever the policy of the United States; and when the Soviet Union is in the position to wage war, there will no longer be any possibility of a meaningful American victory. Today, such a victory can be won without war—but only if the United States adopts a policy far more adequate to the needs of the world than that which Mr. Burnham proposes. Although he recognizes that the removal of the abuses of our society is a weapon in the struggle for the world, he seems to relegate this to a secondary place. But it is the one indispensable weapon. For unless the West can meet the needs of its peoples, it can never mobilize them adequately in their own defense.
Such a program of social reconstruction can pull the teeth of the Communist party in this country far more effectively and with far less danger than the policy of suppression for which Mr. Burnham argues with an imposing set of non-sequiturs. He proves, to his own satisfaction, that Communism can be suppressed; it probably can. He goes on to state that the Communist party is fundamentally unlike the Democratic and Republican parties, in that it aims at a permanent monopoly of political power and the extermination of all opposition. Although the Democrats and Republicans have at times attempted to exterminate each other—and the Democrats in Mississippi and Georgia succeeded pretty well in wiping out their opponents by methods not too different from Stalin’s—he is fairly correct here, too. But it is ridiculous to conclude from this that the suppression of the Communist Party is both necessary and compatible with the preservation of democracy.
The suppression of the Communist party per se would serve little purpose, precisely because that party is a conspiratorial organization. It would be necessary to suppress every organization through which it might operate. Hitler could do this, because he was willing and able to suppress every group that was not an organ of the state. But as long as one such organization exists, the Communist movement can make effective use of it, particularly if the illegalization of the party itself removes those indices for the recognition of Communist activity which its behavior supplies.
Hence, whether or not the suppression of the Communist party is compatible with democracy in theory, it is not so in practice. This does not mean that it is unjustifiable—although it may be impracticable—to keep Communists out of positions where they can do damage. And there is no damage to democracy involved in penalizing such Communist activities as espionage. But the problem involved in dealing with the conspiratorial activities of the Communist party is not that of making laws against them, since they are already illegal; it is one of applying those laws effectively. This is not easy, but passing more laws will make it no easier. It will merely make non-Communists who feel themselves endangered by such laws ally themselves with the CP in self-defense.
All in all, The Struggle for the World is a good enough book in part so that its failure to be better in toto becomes doubly exasperating. Perhaps this failure is due to the fact that Mr. Burnham still thinks in terms of a rigid theological orthodoxy—though this time neither Catholic nor Trotskyist—from whose premises the world may be deduced entire, and outside of whose fold there is no salvation. As to the last, he may be right. But if he is, then there simply is no salvation, at least for the Western Civilization in whose preservation Mr. Burnham is interested.