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From Barbarism to Science

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

It Is Later Than You Think. By Max Lerner. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50.

The dilemma we face at this late hour (an extended, inhumanly tense eleven o’clock for modern civilization) may be indicated for Americans under its two aspects: economic and politico-ethical. First, there is the question of increasing production at home and distributing the product more equitably; second, there is the question of what ground we shall take in confronting necessary social readjustments at home and dangers or alarms from abroad. The first question is virtually that of a physical, an engineering adjustment (though not easy in any sense); the second is a question of what lights we should proceed under: democratic or autocratic?

It speaks for Max Lerner’s high courage that he has made, in “It Is Later Than You Think,” a general frontal attack upon the whole dilemma, and while doing so has steadily tried to see all around it. The time cries for strong pamphlets, and Max Lerner, having the qualities of the born pamphleteer, has produced one that is memorable. Where others cloak themselves with the ignorance of their specialized trades, business, politics, or militarism, Lerner has an extraordinarily lucid mind which assimilates information rapidly and can generalize from this, and dares to make judgments. If he does not arrive at final solutions—and who does?—he has the great merit of helping us to eliminate that which is confusing, to focus upon essential things, and to come to grips with realities.

In brief words this book offers a thorough, searching critique of democratic government in our own parlous times, that of England and France as well as of the United States. In an apt, illuminating, and yet very simple phrase, Mr. Ler-ner has defined the form of government in all three countries as that of “crisis states.” That is, their whole policy consists in makeshift, improvised measures to tide over what are seen as “temporary” internal-external stresses. There is no long-term program, no unity or resolution, no direction worth the name, though the enemy, the Fascist, has these qualities in full measure harnessed to his destructive purpose.

The criticism is implicit in the simple definition. In our own country, still well sheltered from foreign aggression, blessed not only with milk and honey but with nearly all resources needed for modern industry, and a skillful, industrial people to boot, we have been wrestling for six years with our internal problems and have very little to show for it. The Roosevelt Administration for once has served not as an “executive committee for the bourgeoisie” (Marx), but as an instrument of democratic rule. The New Deal has been both bracing and educative; it has pioneered socially; it has experimented with some forms of national planning; it has pushed forward on many fronts into ground never penetrated before by predecessors. Yet it has feared its own power, and the “major decisions” are still left to capital. The entrenched opposition of capital, combined with the timidity of political leadership, has by 1939 brought the advancing movement almost to a full stop.

But what we need, as Lerner argues, is really more rather than less New Deal. The challenge of Fascism must be met by providing more industrial democracy, more work-giving, more security. There must be evolved finally a national program of planned production; the state must borrow and invest in production, as capital takes flight or holds sit-down strikes. Thus only can democracy demonstrate its power to rule its own economic destinies.

But how to continue the drive toward a government-controlled economy, toward “democratic collectivism,” Lerner does not demonstrate satisfactorily. The road is blocked for the moment, as he himself shows us, by the fierce resistance of a minority whose privilege, wealth, possession of all the artillery of social struggle (press, radio, party machinery) masters the power of the majority. The modus operandi of Lerner’s planning is left too vague, too lightly sketched in: his proposal of guaranteed industrial production by government subsidy is immediately open to question as a practical measure. There would be vast dislocations, conflicts, competitions — and, yet, by his terms, the transformation must be carried out both peacefully and democratically. But can such sweeping change, tantamount to thorough social revolution, be effected without violence?

Lerner has scanned the logical discrepancies of the official Marxists on this question—which they, being fully engaged in the battle, cannot conveniently admit—and has clearly taken his stand for peaceful revolution via the ballot box. For the revolutionist-by-force may not logically complain if the violent reactionary raises the sword. And the rational reply to the challenge of Fascism, as many of us realize, is to uphold peaceful and democratic-majority process against the obscurantism and bloodthh-stiness of the Fascist. But, in returning to pure democracy, the dignity of individual life, et cetera, as a reply to the Fascist-gangster politique, does not Lerner simply close the circle of his dilemma again? Are not the forces which are implacably opposed to a program of socialized production already entrenched with their machine guns in every nook and cranny of the present democratic system, at the crossroads of electoral and judicial process, at the redoubts of court and representative authority, in the powerhouse of ruling and opposition party machines?

As he proceeds, Lerner himself is fully aware of the rational difficulties involved. This is shown in the later chapters of his book, which deal with the problem of the exercise of power in a democracy. It is self-evident that governmental power over economic life must be extended steadily in the future. But we must cease to fear this power, he argues. “Power is what we make of it.” We must cease to “fear what we must face.”

I can only suggest here a few of the rich hints contained in those brilliant aphoristic chapters, written with a note of deepening reflection, which close this book. When democracy advances again toward dealing positively with its real problems, rather than evading them, it will surely have to reckon with the problem of power. Rational thought must chart the way where only the darkly atavistic and the charismatic have moved with ease. Into this twilight zone between barbarism and scientific advancement Lerner has already sent the first flickering rays of light.


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