Chapter XIII

Power Politics

A recent reviewer correctly remarked that the phrase “power politics” is as tautological as would be the phrase “sexual fornication.” Perhaps a little qualification is necessary. In the realm of action there can be no politics without power. In the realm of speculation there can be any kind of politics. Anglo-Saxon law and political theory are largely a mass of fictions. During the hundred odd years from Waterloo to Sarajevo, the might of Britain and money were wielded so smoothly that the underlying facts of power came to be almost completely lost to sight. The obscuring of the power factors was not accidental but studied.

Property rights, of course, have always rested and must always rest on naked power, else why would a destitute man see his family starve while observing the rich flaunt abundance in comparative security? But, under feudal and other earlier regimes, the power factor behind property was not deliberately obscured. On the contrary, it was ostentatiously displayed. The lord of the manor carried a sword conspicuously and was a swordsman of distinction; so were his knights. And the poor villains were denied the right to bear arms. Property then went to great pains to exhibit its power. Ownership and naked power were honestly identified with each other. Today a far mightier but much less visible power protects the barons of the bags than that which formerly guarded the barons of the crags. But, thanks to the institutions, folkways and ideas inaugurated by the English revolutions of the seventeenth century and the French and American Revolutions of the eighteenth century, modern property rights have been made to appear to the average man to rest on contract and consent interpreted by unarmed judges and enforced through the peaceful processes of law, the coercive aspects of which are obscured by reason of the virtual impossibility of effective opposition. In logic or fact the chief fallacy of this popular ideology is that it supposes that majority consent equals freedom for all and the absence of coercion. There need be no antithesis between consent of the governed and coercion of the governed. Much legally happens to people to which they never consent. The governed may consent to be coerced by their government. Do our governed consent to unemployment? Is destitution not coercion? Consent often demands and imposes coercion. The coercion of an overwhelming majority can be much harsher and more effective than that exercised by an individual or a class. The coercion of economic necessity is real though not a subject of consent or refusal of consent.

Democracy and capitalism developed a new technique of coercion in the interests of property. During the rise of capitalism there was within capitalistic nations general assent to its peculiar coercions largely because opportunities to share in property rights to power over and coercion of others were sufficiently numerous; while within the society of nations those dissatisfied with the coercion of the mighty imperialists like Britain were, as a whole, the darker races for instance, utterly powerless to oppose it. The later comers into the imperialist game, like Germany, Austria-Hungary, Japan and Italy, found enough opportunities during the nineteenth century to expand at the expense of the weak not to think seriously of then challenging the really mighty Britain. The idea that the nineteenth century Pax Britannica, such as it was, consisted of an era of more or less unbroken peace is, of course, utter nonsense, as was shown on pages 104-106 in a list of British imperialist wars of that period.

What is now meant by power politics is, in reality, just a new frankness in discussing the use of power in politics. When the British subjugated native races in the imperialist processes of the nineteenth century, such measures were not considered either in the popular or learned thinking of that period as having anything to do with politics or power. What American founding father or signer of the Constitution ever thought of African slavery or killing American Indians for their lands as having any remote connection with the philosophy of either politics or power? American intellectuals like Jefferson could write and talk endlessly about our governments being founded on consent and law rather than force and violence, having all the while a plantation full of slaves, with armed overseers and manacles, and while fighting the Indians and the French more or less all the time. Thus was born Jeffersonian or Jacksonian democracy. Both Jefferson and Jackson, like the Athenian democrats, were slaveowners. Even our having a four year Civil War which gave birth to the Republican party does not shake the popular American illusion that, so far as we were concerned, the nineteenth century was a period of law and order and peace. One just does not consider such facts as our Civil War, the Mexican War or incessant warfare on the Indians, up to the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century, when one rnoralizes about the new political cults being essentially phenomena of force and violence.

One of the great secrets of Anglo-Saxon success is the imposition on others of their canons of definition, taste and ethics. According to these canons, anything the Anglo-Saxons do in the furtherance of their interests is, by definition, not a use of force or violence. If they have slaves, theirs is still a government based on consent. When they worked nine year old children in textile mills, it was with the consent of the children whose right to freedom of contract Anglo-Saxon justice respected. Anything we do is merely the upholding of law, order, justice or human freedom, etc., etc. The imposition of these concepts, definitions and theories has been one of the greatest of British imperial conquests: the intellectual subjugation of the world to the exigencies of British and capitalistic interests.

The new revolutionary ideologies and leaders have challenged these canons. That challenge, an essential feature of the new revolution, has brought into use the relatively new phrase “power politics.” The leader of a new revolution must talk frankly to his followers about power. After a revolution has triumphed, its leaders and regime grow more and more reticent and equivocal about power, if the regime be democratic. It is during an important shift of power that one hears a lot about power politics. The reason is not that power in politics is then coming back into use, for politics is always essentially a conspiracy of power. The reason is merely that new hands are being laid on power and old hands are losing it. Those who lose power denounce the power-hungry barbarians who oust them; those who come to power denounce the abuse of power by their predecessors. Both are right, though their respective charges are as unimportant as they are true. One now hears more about power, not because it is more important or more active as a social agent, but simply because the shift in power calls attention to the existence of a recently concealed factor.

The masses may be affected somewhat by a shift in power, though rarely as much as is commonly believed. Thus, in Russia the coming of socialism has meant a shift in power from the hereditary and largely incompetent elite of Czardom to an elite which was suppressed under the Czar. The shift has meant a lot to the outs who came in and the ins who went out, but to the masses who are always out (of power), swapping masters has meant little real difference. They still have to rise early, toil late and undergo hardships as before.

The essence of the beginning of a new revolution is a shift in power, hence the current emphasis on power politics. The chief reasons a shift in power has to occur are (1) incompetence or failure, for whatever the reasons, on the part of the holders of power; and (2) an organized attempt to exclude too many from power who are as competent as those holding power. Shifts in power are not really caused by mass preferences, though the masses and their perennial discontents are always exploited by an out-elite in a bid for power. The most frequent cause of the downfall of one regime is that it fails to provide for a sufficient circulation of the elite.

The real cause of the American Revolution against George III or the later Latin-American revolutions against Spain was that the colonial elite resented the favors, jobs and revenues going to the elite of the mother country. Czarist Russia was a dictatorship of a bureaucracy, exactly like communist Russia, Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. Only Czarist Russia attempted to perpetuate the dictatorship of a hereditary bureaucracy, which must always prove impossible. A dictatorship of a bureaucracy, to survive, must provide for the easy access to power of most of the elite. Capitalism is a dictatorship of money, impersonal, anonymous and hard to put your finger on because of the ways of money under such a system. To work, it must provide opportunities for a large percentage of the elite to make money and must not perpetuate inherited fortunes too long. It must maintain a three generations from-shirt-sleeves-to-shirt-sleeves tradition. The overthrow of any regime can be averted mainly by buying off enough of the elite of each generation through advancement to power. So far, war has proved the surest, if not the only, workable, system of selection to keep the powerful in power by a continuous process of selection and elimination.

What, more than anything else, doomed the Weimar Republic in Germany or the Czarist regime in Russia was the frustration of too many of the elite. In Germany, from the Kaiser to Hitler, roughly half of the young graduating from the institutions of higher learning found no jobs suitable to their intellectual and social rank. In many cases, their middle-class parents and relatives had been ruined by the postwar inflation. It was not the proletariat who made the revolution in Germany, though in its rise to power the Nazi revolution did attract large numbers of the unskilled or semi-skilled workers. Similarly, in the Russian Revolution it was not the proletariat but the frustrated elite who created the revolution. A non-hereditary bureaucracy is probably the most stable regime possible for human society to achieve. In the present state of enlightenment, a stable rule by an hereditary aristocracy is unthinkable. The restoration of monarchy, therefore, is about as likely as the restoration of chattel slavery or polygamy. A new Caesarism cannot survive on the hereditary principle. Rome’s Caesars were not a hereditary caste.

Whatever the chances may be for a restoration of an hereditary ruling class, a revolution is essentially a shift in power from an in-elite to an out-elite, most of the dynamism for the change coming from the out-elite. The growth of a dissatisfied elite is more an incident of the working of the system and changed conditions than the result of deliberate suppression of the outs by the ins. In this country and both Britain and France, it is probable that revolutionary change will occur without civil war or insurrectionary violence of any magnitude. The present ins in the democracies are neither organized nor class conscious. The changed mechanics, after we go to war, will at once work for a clarification of thinking about power by the outs or marginal ins among the elite.

Changed mechanics will create a new bureaucratic corps of the elite, strategically well situated, who will be too numerous and powerful after a long war to turn, when it is over, to selling pencils on the sidewalks, while the present gentry of trade take back the running of the nation’s industries. For the bureaucratic new elite to take over, it should be enough for them to see clearly that, in any attempt to return to private capitalism, they cannot be taken care of as they have become accustomed. The new bureaucratic elite will feel their oats before the end of a long war. As the war goes on, investors, or those merely owning wealth, will grow poorer and poorer as a result of heavy taxation to avert inflation, while businessmen will grow weaker and weaker by reason of increased regulation and regimentation brought about by the military exigencies. As capitalists and businessmen grow poorer and weaker, the bureaucratic elite of government and organized labor will grow stronger and more cocky. Add to this the popular disillusionment and bitterness over the failure of the war to produce anything but bereavements and sacrifices, and you have enough dynamism for a drastic phase of revolutionary change. The essence of this dynamism, of course, will be hate for the persons, ideas and institutions responsible for our entry into war. The point to emphasize in this connection is that revolution does not follow any fixed pattern. Here it will almost certainly not in any way conform to the pattern of the French Revolution or the earlier English Revolution of Oliver Cromwell. Still less will it follow the Russian or German precedents.

Revolution in America should not be thought of as a wave of reform or unrest. The American people voted against the Hoover Depression rather than for the Roosevelt New Deal. In 1940 America, on the verge of war, there is some unrest but far from enough to warrant any serious talk about revolution. The revolution which has been going on for seven years under the New Deal has not been at all the result of a desire for revolutionary social change. In so far as it has been a revolution, it has been the result of the necessities of the situation rather than the preferences of the people. The people do not want revolution and have not wanted it at any time since 1929. They have wanted only business or, rather, prosperity, as usual. In default of this, they have wanted only handouts from the government. In receipt of these, they have wanted mainly from their leaders bedtime stories told with a soothing radio voice.

At the opening of 1940 the American people are not politics or power conscious in respect to their domestic economic problems. At the opening of 1940 they felt more violently over the poor Finns, the poor Poles, the poor Czechs and even the poor Chinese than over poor Americans out of work. The American people are more worried over democracy for Europeans than jobs for Americans. This being their mood, it is obvious that they are going to do something about Europe or China before they do anything about America. They will revolutionize America in their attempt and failure to stop revolution in Europe. This they will do, not in a humane, constructive or patriotic impulse to save America, but in an irrational and destructive impulse to damn Hitler and Stalin. Possibly conditions could eventually become bad enough in America to precipitate a violently revolutionary phase in this country without our going to war. But there is no point to speculating about that possible eventuality when it appears so much more likely that our situation will become explosive and our revolution dynamic through our entry into war to stop Japan, Germany, Russia, world revolution and sin abroad.

It may even be better for us to get our revolution through a foreign war than through an indefinitely prolonged deterioration of our domestic economic situation. For one thing, if we go to war, the power conflict between our Haves and Have-nots, incipient in 1940, will take the subtler form of the progressive ruin of the American Haves to the strains of the “Star Spangled Banner” (taxation and regulation will do it) and the accompanying expansion of power and inflammation of feeling of the American Have-nots through war measures and experiences. If it happens this way, the cruder forms of class struggle may be entirely avoided in this country. Our bemused rich and economically powerful will be crushed amid the incense of patriotism and in a great élan of enthusiasm to save the British and French Haves. This would be following the tradition of the Czar and his nobles. A ruling class about to perish usually facilitates and hastens its own destruction. It will be ironic, but most of our rich will not have the wit to see the humor of it until it has been spelled out for them in history books written a decade hence. What simpler or more painless way of wiping out private fortunes than that of having them voluntarily put by their owners into government bonds, the value of which will be wiped out by slow inflation in a long-drawn-out war?

In international affairs the same fundamental conflicts of interest and power prevail as in domestic politics. The Haves are pitted against the Have-nots, with everything to be settled in terms of power, armed, economic or ideological. In the long run the patterns of distribution, both internationally and intranationally must conform to the changing patterns of force or power factors. Since 1917 the chief trouble in Europe has been the incompatibility of the distribution pattern with the force or power pattern. For that incompatibility the United States is mainly to blame. By taking the side of the Allies in 1917, we enabled them in 1919 to dictate a peace and a redistribution of territory which the play of the force factors in that war, without our interference, would never have permitted. Then, having enabled the Allies to impose a peace which would have been impossible without the aid of our might, we withdrew our might from the equation. And so, twenty years later, the war resumes. If the European power factors had been allowed to make the peace without our interference in 1917 or 1918, they probably would not have changed enough in twenty years to upset that peace. As it happened, the withdrawal of our support from the Allies after the peace of Versailles was enough to create the necessary unbalance for another war.

The theory underlying our entry into the war, of course, was that the world’s troubles were due to one personal devil, then called the Kaiser, whose removal, with our aid, would permit the establishment of a permanent rule of righteousness. This theory erred in one basic assumption, namely, that the international order can rest on anything except a balance of power. As a matter of fact, though we refused after the World War to enter the League of Nations, we did lend considerable support to the impossible world order created at Versailles by keeping up until 1929 a stream of loan funds to Germany and other European countries. When we withdrew that support from the Versailles system, we made its collapse only a matter of a short time.

Almost exactly the same issue confronts us in 1940 as in 1917, only this time it is more clearly drawn. There is now a more unanimous moral indignation against Hitler than in 1917 against the Kaiser. But the power problem is substantially the same in that the Allies have not the slightest chance of winning without our assistance, the situation now being much worse for the angels than in 1917. In 1917 Japan and Italy were on the side of the angels and Russia had just gone under after putting up a hard fight which was at the outset invaluable to the Allies. Today Russia and Japan are against the angels and Italy cannot be counted on their side.

The issue again confronting us is that of whether we shall add our might to that of Britain and France to dictate a peace which they alone have not the power either to impose now or enforce once it is dictated. The American people have recently indicated, both in innumerable polls of public opinion and in diverse other ways, that they feel that we cannot stand for political regimes like those of Hitler and Stalin. But there is no sense to our making periodical crusades to overthrow regimes like those of the Kaiser and Hitler if we are not willing to enter a perpetual alliance with Britain and France forever to prevent the subsequent rise of similar regimes in Germany, Russia, Italy, etc., etc.

There was just one way in 1917 and there is just one way in 1940 to keep America out of war. That way is to make our people see the issues in terms of power rather than morals or sentimentalism. But almost no American isolationist or opponent of our going to war is willing so to state the issues. Consequently isolationist opposition to our going to war is futile and doomed to failure the moment our President decides that the time has come for us to move in that direction. The moral case for our going to war cannot be answered except by challenging its major premise, stated in President Roosevelt’s message to the opening Congress on January 3, 1940, that it is our business how European governments behave in Europe. The case for intervention in Europe on moral grounds can only be assailed effectively by discussing alternative courses of action in terms of power. The moral argument for our partnership in a European crusade for righteousness is best refuted by pointing out that it calls for a continuing exercise of power over European destinies which we are neither able to make nor willing to undertake.