Liberalism and the Anti-Fascist Front


May 1939

The positive creed of an ardent democrat. Adapted from his address to the annual meeting of Survey Associates, April 3, Mr. MacLeish's challenging article has been requested in advance by many of those who were present. His words made the occasion a distinguished one, and we are fortunate to be able to share them with all Survey Graphic readers.

IT IS THE NATURE OF LIBERALISM TO ASK QUESTIONS AND NOT to answer them. The question which American liberalism asks itself in the spring of 1939 however is a question which must be answered. For American liberalism, which has been a disinterested and judicial observer of so many conflicts in so many parts of the world, remote and near, now finds itself an observer of a conflict in which it can be neither disinterested nor judicial because that conflict involves itself, and threatens its own right to exist. If the mutiny against moral law, the treason against intellectual truth, which we call fascism destroys democratic society, it will destroy liberalism as well. Liberalism, therefore, is a party to the struggle. And the question is simply this: What does American liberalism propose to do about it? How does American liberalism propose to defend democratic society against the treason of fascism? What policy of defense does American liberalism believe should be adopted?

The issue can be stated more narrowly and more specifically. Logically, and practically as well, there are two broad alternatives. An attempt can be made to defend democracy against fascism by adopting an anti-fascist policy, or an attempt can be made to defend democracy against fascism by adopting a pro-democratic policy. The first is the policy adopted by the Communist Party. It is a defensive policy which devotes its efforts and its means altogether to the weakening of fascism by the exploitation of fascism's cruelties, stupidities and defects. The second is the policy so far adopted by no one. In theory it would be an affirmative and offensive policy which would devote its efforts and the means at its disposal to the strengthening of democracy. The question which American liberalism must answer is whether it will follow the Communist Party into a policy of anti-fascism or whether it will adopt the alternative policy of aggressive pro-democratic action aimed, not at the exploitation of the weakness of fascism, but at the realization of the potential strength of democracy. To my way of thinking the answer to this question will almost certainly determine the future form of American society. It is an answer which must be given very soon.

There is a great deal to be said—or rather a great deal is said—for the first, the anti-fascist, alternative. It is said that anti-fascism is the only realistic policy because only on the negative line of anti-fascism is it possible to form a common front of all opinions, and only by a common front of all opinions is it possible for democracy to win. It is said that anti-fascism is the only sound psychological policy, since the love of democracy is itself a negative thing, being no more than the hatred of tyranny, and since the hatred of fascism supplies again the hatred of tyranny which is necessary to give the love of democracy vitality and force. It is said, in short, that anti-fascism, both practically and ideally, is the policy which should be adopted.

Speaking alone for myself I must dissent from these arguments and their conclusion. I do not believe that antifascism is the only realistic policy of defense. And the reason I disbelieve it is precisely the reason advanced in its support. It is undoubtedly true that only on the negative line of anti-fascism is it possible to form a common front of all opinions in defense of democracy. But the reason why it is possible to form a common front of all opinions on the negative line of anti-fascism is precisely that it is not democracy which is being defended on that line but the status quo. It is the defense of the status quo which brings together the Chicago Tribune and Mr. Ickes and the State Department and the CIO and the D.A.R. and the radio announcers and the people who pay income taxes and the people who do not pay income taxes. And the policy which proposes to fight fascism by defending the status quo is not a realistic policy but an extremely unrealistic policy because the status quo cannot be defended. A status quo of which the most noticeable characteristic is ten millions of unemployed cannot be defended against fascism. The frontiers of the status quo can be fortified, and should be fortified, against attacks from abroad. But fascism, as we have seen in Spain, as we have seen in Czechoslovakia, as we have seen here also, does not attack from abroad. It attacks in the back rooms, in the dark of the railroad trestles, in the sand-lots down by the river, in the loudspeaker on the kitchen table where the grating voice of the ambitious priest rattles the pitiful dishes with spite and hate. It attacks where the fleets and the coast-defense guns and the bombers of the status quo cannot intercept it. It attacks where the status quo is vulnerable—within. The common front which can be formed to defend the status quo against fascism is a common front which stands with its back to the real danger.

IT IS TIME, IT SEEMS TO ME, FOR AMERICAN LIBERALISM TO recognize the real danger for what it is and to call it by its proper name. The communist leadership against fascism, which liberals generally follow, is unable, for obvious reasons, to face the fascist facts. It is, understandably, committed to the theory that fascism is the seizure of power by a decaying capitalism to forestall the seizure of power by the protelariat. That theory does not fit the facts in Germany and Italy nor does it fit the probabilities of the situation here. On the contrary it produces just such errors of liberal judgment as the policy of the common front for the defense of the status quo. If fascism is the coup d'état of a frightened and desperate capitalism then one way to prevent fascism is to reassure the capitalists by promising to respect the status quo, and another and even better way to prevent fascism is to line up side by side with the capitalists for the defense of the status quo against armed attack from outside. But fascism is not the coup d'état of a frightened and desperate capitalism. Fascism is the coup d'état of a class which is as hostile to the ruling class capitalists as it is to the proletariat of Marx: a class which denies the right of the capitalists to govern as vigorously as it denies the right of the proletariat of Marx to inherit: a class which claims that it, and not the proletariat of Marx, will take over from the dying capitalists, and that it will take over not in the interest of these dying capitalists but of itself.

This class is the class which in all modern, industrialized societies is potentially the most dangerous because it is the most ignorant, the most violent, the most brutal and the most unhappy. It is the class which the industrial revolution and the capitalist money system produced between them—the class which the industrial revolution, with its need for specialized labor and its liberal theories of education, pulled up and away from the masses who labor with their hands—the class which the capitalist money system, with its limited opportunities and its materialistic values, left hanging just above brute labor, just below comfort and decency and self-respect. Fascism in Italy and in Germany was the successful revolt of this class. Fascist parties in other countries are parties of this class. The reason why fascism is so brutal, so vulgar, so envious, so ignorant, so superstitious, so childish, so shrewd, so dishonest, is that these are the characteristics, not of a single dictator acting for some hidden clique of terrified financial magnates or other mysterious persons, but of this class. Capitalism is responsible for this fascist class. Capitalism created it and consigned it to live in the limbo between the worlds, seducing it from the discipline of hand labor on the one side, denying it the discipline of head labor on the other; depriving it on the one side, of the realism, the hard-headedness, the piety, the traditional human wisdom, the salt sense, the kindness of those who labor the earth, and the earth's trees and the earth's metals, with their hands; depriving it on the other of that different kindness, that different knowledge, that different faith of those whose life is in the mind. But though capitalism created the fascist class, capitalism can neither control it now nor use it. Fascism is capitalism's revenge upon itself: an old and dying king eaten by the children his own crimes conceived.

Clearly then the allegedly realistic policy of defense against fascism which proposes to fortify the frontiers of the status quo is not a realistic policy of defense against the actual fascist danger, for it is the status quo which has created this actual fascist danger. The only possible defense against the treason of the fascist class is the strengthening of democratic institutions and democratic loyalty within the country. A nation moving radically and vigorously toward a believable democratic objective is not a nation in which a fascist coup d'état is possible. A nation standing still and defending a static and decadent economy is a nation in which a fascist coup is all but inevitable.

But if anti-fascism, as a realistic policy, is indefensible, so too is the rationalization of that policy which argues that anti-fascism will reinvigorate democracy—that it will supply again the hatred of tyranny and the fear of oppression upon which the love of democracy rests. It is undoubtedly true that the love of liberty involves the hatred of despotism. But there is a difference between inventing liberty out of hatred for despotism, and defending liberty against the fear of despotism. The hatred of tyranny which results in the invention of liberty is one thing: it produces a new and affirmative act of belief and hope. The fear of tyranny which accompanies the defense of a liberty already won is another: it remains only fear. And a policy which rests upon fear is a dangerous policy to depend upon because fear is a short-winded emotion.

People get over indignation. They get over horror. They even get over fear. What they don't want to remember drains easily from their minds. Darwin noted long ago that observations and thoughts contrary to his conclusions disappeared from his mind more readily than observations and thoughts which were favorable to his conclusions. We too have seen how easily things we wish we didn't know escape from our memories. We have seen newsreel pictures taken in Spain and China which were unforgettable. We have forgotten them. We suffer now the bitter indignation which only cold-blooded cruelty such as Franco's can inspire. And we will forget that indignation. Indeed we will forget this last and angriest indignation sooner than the others, for people forget the shocking and the shameful and the terrible the more readily as it is the more shocking and the more shameful. For a generation after the Civil War people debated Sherman's responsibility for the burning of half of Atlanta—a fire in which no one died. A few months after the Nazi bombing of Guernica and the fascist slaughter in the bull-ring at Badajoz, we have forgotten both Guernica and Badajoz.

Speaking still for myself I can only say that I do not believe in the negative policy, the defensive policy, the antifascist policy. I believe only in an affirmative policy, an offensive policy, a pro-democratic policy. I believe that American liberalism must refuse to follow the communist lead, that it must refuse to forego its own nature and its own purposes, that it must refuse to identify democracy with the status quo, that it must become not less liberal, less radical, but more liberal, more radical. I believe that American liberalism must become more liberal, not less liberal as the danger in Europe becomes more acute. I believe that American democracy must invent and continually reinvent its democracy; that it must attack not defend.

BRIEFLY, 1 BELIEVE THAT AMERICAN LIBERALISM MUST accept the full obligation of its decision to defend democracy against fascism. It must ask itself: "What do we mean by democracy?" And it must answer that question. It must answer: "We mean by democracy a society in which the dignity of man is of first im portance, a society in which everything else must be subject to, and must support, the dignity of man." In Marxist theory economics comes first—all politics is economics and economic necessity determines political action. In fascist Practice, politics comes first—all economics is politics and the political police determine the operation of economic laws. In democratic theory man comes first—both politics and economics are subjected to the advancement of the dignity and decency of man.

What our American liberalism must do in this crisis, and in this crisis more than at any other time, is to apply the definition of democracy to the times and to say how and by what means democracy in these times can be strengthened and made vigorous.

More precisely and more practically, what American liberalism must do in this crisis is to forego the characteristic liberal attitude of critical correction and accept instead the risks of the action.

It must put aside the irresponsible self-righteousness with which it sometimes judges the decisions of those charged with the government of the republic and accept instead its share of responsibility for that government.

It must accept responsibility for steps already taken which lead in the direction a dynamic democracy should go—steps like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Federal Arts Projects, the techniques developed by the Department of Agriculture for the democratic control of programs of production-and exert its strength to extend those experiments in their own fields and to invent their analogues elsewhere.

AN AMERICAN WRITER WHO HAS SEEN MORE OF OUR TIME than most of us have seen, remarks that there are two minds in the world. There are those who believe in getting things done. And there are those who believe in being right. The distinction is notorious enough in the Marxist movement where those who believe in being right have acquired a name and an unenviable reputation of their own. But there are also Trotskyists elsewhere and not least among liberals.

There are also liberals who enjoy the sterile and rancid pleasures of self-righteousness, liberals who prefer the safety of a spinsterish and impotent intellectualism to the risks of affirmation and belief. It is these liberals who have given to American liberalism its characteristic tone of moral self-satisfaction, intellectual snobbishness and inability to act. If they continue to direct liberal thinking in this country, shaming into silence and inaction those who believe that in liberalism also action is important and ends must be achieved, American liberalism will remain what it is and the questions it must ask itself will go unanswered.

But if American liberalism will shake off that impotent and dilettante control, and face the fact that it also is a party to these wars, it may perhaps exert a controlling influence on their outcome. At least it may supply a direction and a program which American democracy now lacks.

MAY 1939