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Albert Gates

Books in Review

Irresponsibility in Disguise

(March 1954)


From The New International, Vol. XX No. 1, January-February 1954, pp. 60–62.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


Containment or Liberation, An Inquiry into the Aims of United States Foreign Policy
by James Burnham
Published by John Day. 254 pp, $3.50

What Europe Thinks Of America
Edited and with an Introduction by James Burnham
Published by John Day. 222 pp., $3.50

Several months ago Max Eastman and others wrote a letter to the New Leader complaining that James Burnham’s Containment or Liberation was being sabotaged by bookstores and reviewers. They were certain that some kind of plot was afoot to prevent people from learning of this devastating criticism of American foreign policy. Had they that opportunity they would presumably rise in wrath at what the author describes as administration and State Department “appeasement” of Stalin and the Russian State. We are inclined to doubt the existence of such a plot. It would have been superfluous since the book, by itself and unaided, is deadly enough to drive readers from it.

Like most of Burnham’s books, this one has died quickly. It deserved to die, too, for it is, like his other books, a highly irresponsible one. With a special gift for over-simplification, Burnham has presented the whole problem of American foreign policy so that it would seem that the successive administrators of American foreign policy (indeed, Burnham denies that a foreign policy, except in wartime, ever existed) were made up of imbeciles or outright enemies of the country.

For those of us who are socialists and see the dangerous folly of American bourgeois policy toward Stalinism, it is embarrassing to discuss a book like this. Criticism of it might be interpreted as a brief for those whom Burnham attacks. But we trust our readers are fully acquainted with our socialist program and views to understand our criticism of the irrepressible, irresponsible Burnham.

Is it possible that the United States has never had a foreign policy, except in war, as Burnham claims? “At other times,” he writes, “there has ordinarily been no foreign policy at all.” Is this really accurate? Is this what we learn from history? No, the United States, until recent years, had the foreign policy that it required, that suited its needs and purposes.

It is true that the United States did not prior to the two World Wars have great and insoluble world problems. The great world bourgeois problems were indeed borne by Great Britain. But the problems thrust upon this country in the First World War and which were increased in the Second have become so crucial that an inexperienced bourgeoisie bumbles and stumbles on its way, using its tremendous resources and power as a substitute for intelligent policy. What is nearer the truth, is that a bourgeois-imperialist policy is not an effective diplomatic or political weapon against Stalinism.

Burnham obviously equates an ineffective policy with no policy. That is why he proposes, instead of an intelligent bourgeois foreign policy, one that is irresponsible in that its purpose would result in a war quicker than anyone desires or expects.

Burnham is certain that if peace continues it can only mean such a consolidation of Russian power as will end for all time the possibility of its defeat. In this sense he is a defeatist who sees nothing but strength in Stalinism – a system without inner contradictions. This is not the first time that this ex-Marxist has issued his apocalyptic prophesies (does anyone remember his Managerial Revolution?). So certain is Burnham that Russia must be destroyed now that he is willing to chance the prospect of an early third world war, even though his side is politically and militarily unprepared. Since it costs him little, he is quite willing to guarantee that “Moscow will not deliberately start a general war in the next period.”

If it will not start a war in the next period, what must be done? End the policy of containment and go over to an offensive. With whom? The peoples of the Iron Curtain and the Russian masses? How? That is not quite clear. At any rate, that is the only policy for the United States because its allies in Western Europe are not reliable. What makes the Western European allies unreliable and what makes the people in the Iron Curtain countries very reliable? What program shall be offered to these peoples to make them rally around the American banner, a banner which hasn’t yet been able to rally the masses who are free of Stalinist domination?

There is no answer to these all-important questions from the man who writes in cliches (“Western culture,” “civilization,” “property rights,” etc.) which he himself not so long ago rejected as bourgeois myths. The book is unhistorical in its analyses, shallow in its proposals and haughty in its appreciation of the problems and feelings of the masses in Western Europe. It is, above all, snobbishly chauvinistic and imperialistic, and does not even have the quality of bourgeois realism, conveying a spurious and passionless Realpolitik.

There is a fair measure of sneering criticism of the “internationalist minded,” the “world government enthusiasts,” the “global humanitarians,” and the “all-out United Nationalists,” which ends with a dull homily: “Nations like individual men must put their first reliance on themselves.”

Burnham maintains that, if Europe won’t defend herself, the United States must nevertheless defend the continent against Asia. But only through “liberation” – not “containment.” For if “they (the Russians) merely stabilize, then we have already lost. That is why the policy of containment, even if one hundred per cent successful, is a formula for Soviet victory ... We are lost if our opponent so much as holds his own. There remains only a limited time during which it will continue to be possible to move against him. Americans will not even be granted much longer the desperate comfort that as a last resort there are always the bombs to turn to. If the political offensive is long delayed, it will be too late for bombs.”

If Burnham is serious, then there isn’t much time for his policy of liberation either; there is only time for immediate mobilization for war. As a matter of fact, that is the actual theme of the book. In his plea for an offensive against the Russians short of war or as a prelude to war, Burnham seems to care nothing at all about the post-war facts of life, the war-weariness of the great masses of the world, the war-weariness at home, the demobilization of Allied armed forces, the inability of the West to mount a military offensive since the close of the war.

Does Burnham think the United States can do the job alone? No, he doesn’t quite venture such an opinion. But if the United States must win allies in Europe and Asia, what kind of program can accomplish this exceedingly difficult and thus far unrealized goal? Burnham offers the world a Pax Americana against a Pax Stalinensis. That is why his whole book is truly a grim and irresponsible joke.

In a world of disintegration, dominated at one end by Stalinist totalitarianism and oppression, and at the other by a decadent bourgeois society maintained by an American power limited in its capacity to keep the system alive on a world scale, Burnham has no social program to offer and no single vibrant idea that could rally behind it the great masses unencompassed by Stalinist rule. Incredible as this may seem, it is inevitable for a man who fled the movement of socialism to embrace a bourgeois society that can barely hold itself together.

If Containment or Liberation adds little or nothing to one’s knowledge of the world and its problems, What Europe Thinks of America, the anthology compiled by the same author and also recently published, does pinpoint in part the problem of the Continent and American failures there.

The book is a collection of essays by Europeans of the Right, “friends” of America. Most are sheer exercises dealing in secondary or trivial questions of the likes and dislikes of the Europeans and Americans for each other.

One, by a British Conservative, Julian Amery, voices the common complaint of the British bourgeoisie against American economic policy and begs American capitalism to understand the economic problems of Great Britain and the Continent, to give the latter the possibility of functioning in competition with the United States in the world market. The plea will be of no avail.

There are three essays, however, which are outstanding in their analysis and appreciation of the problem of the relation of the United States to Europe. They are by an Italian journalist, Guido Piovene; a Pole, Juliusz Mieroszewski, and a French professor, Raymond Aron.

There is an underlying common chord in their writings: the old social order on the Continent is dead; you cannot fight Stalinism by merely pointing to the capitalism of the United States; a vigorous social program is indispensable to any progress in Europe; such progress must begin with the premise that the old order is dead. Their essays do not base themselves on vituperative denunciations of Stalinism; rather, they try to understand the attractiveness that Stalinism has for such large numbers of people. Although at least one of them is sympathetic to Burnham’s thesis of “liberation,” he cautions that this idea must be filled with a definite social content appealing to people who do not want to return to the good old evil days.

These three raise precisely the issues which Burnham has so studiously avoided in his own thesis.


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