Hobson’s choice: moth ball socialism and antiseptic imperialism

“Not just in China, but everywhere in the world without exception, one either leans to the side of imperialism or the side of socialism. Neutrality is mere camouflage; a third road does not exist.” Mao Zedong, 1949

“I absolutely refuse to associate myself with anyone who cannot discern the essential night-and-day difference between theocratic fascism and liberal secular democracy…” Christopher Hitchens, 2008

I. Introduction

The global political confrontations of the twentieth century appeared, in explicit form, as dualistic conflicts of civilisation versus barbarism: the Second World War posed a choice between Atlantic bloc imperialism and fascism, and the Cold War, between US imperialism and Stalinist totalitarianism. Once again, in our contemporary era, there appears before us a duel: between Western imperialism and Islamism. Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations? thesis seemingly offers a more nuanced representation. Huntington states at the start of his essay: “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation-states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”


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Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (Wikimedia Commons)

In actuality, what Huntington presents is yet another dualism (this one reductive to cultural and religious identities), the West versus the Rest, which is devoid of materiality and class relations. Fredric Jameson astutely remarks: “here the plurality of cultures simply stands for the decentralized, diplomatic and military jungle with which ‘Western’ or ‘Christian’ culture will have to deal. Yet ultimately, any discussion of globalization surely has to come to terms, one way or another, with the reality of capitalism itself.”

An old debate between the US socialist Hal Draper and the Italian novelist and politician Ignazio Silone in 1956 offers remarkable political instruction, then and now, in response to the hegemonic appearance of a ‘dual camp’ (for the full debate, see The “Third Camp”: Hal Draper debates Ignazio Silone). Crucial background to this debate is Silone’s original position regarding global conflicts, as communicated in an interview in 1939, in which he advances a socialist alternative to supporting the conservative bourgeois democratic bloc against the fascist bloc. Draper, seventeen years later, questions the “political transubstantiation” of Silone: from this to that of offering support to the Atlantic imperialist bloc against the fascist bloc and thus abandoning the socialist alternative to both. The Silone of 1939, Draper spells out, is the best critic of a later Silone.

II. The Ignazio Silone of 1939

Ignazio Silone (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1939 Silone is very clear in his resistance against political progressives being forced into siding with one of two apparent camps in global conflicts:

“The world is now divided into two great fronts: one composed of the conservatives, that is, of the democracies or other partisans of collective security; the other composed of the revisionists or fascists. Neither of these two fronts is capable of assuring peace or of solving the economic and political problems now confronting the world. Real peace depends today on the rapidity with which a third front is created, on the rapidity with which revolutionary workers all over the world retain their political autonomy and resume the struggle to overthrow capitalism.”

He continues:

“They try to force on us the dilemma: status quo or regression? Most of the progressive forces have already accepted this Hobson’s choice.”

Hobson’s choice – a phrase originating from Thomas Hobson (a livery stable owner in Cambridge), who presented his customers with the offer of ‘take this horse or none at all’ – is the presentation of free choice when in reality there is no choice at all; this, Silone recognises, is the trap that the bourgeoisie lays down for us.

Furthermore, Silone makes plain that he is not equating one camp with the other:

“One thing I must make clear at the outset: I think it would be a serious mistake to put bourgeois democracy and fascism on the same level, in view of the great differences between these two forms of political organisation. The Stalinists, who until 1934 denied the existence of any such differences and who fought against social-democracy and liberal democracy as the equivalent of fascism, these gentlemen in actuality made possible Hitler’s victory.”

The fundamental point Silone is making is this: in order to effectively fight fascism, one cannot rely on bourgeois democratic regimes, as they do not provide meaningful solutions to the conditions of existence and to the problems which fuel the growth of fascism – only a socialist alternative to both can do this. This is a point that can also be applied to the fight against Stalinism or against Islamism today. Silone elaborates:

“it would also be a mistake, through fear of fascism, to turn conservative. Fascism’s power, its mass appeal, its contagious influence, all are due to the fact that fascism means false solutions, easy solutions, ersatz solutions but, all the same, solutions of the real problems of our time. We can conquer fascism only by proposing and carrying out other solutions – just, humane, progressive solutions of these same problems. But conservative democracy denies the existence of these problems. She does not see them, does not wish to see them, is unable to see them. That is why, in spite of her military strength, her material wealth and her monopoly of raw materials, when conservative democracy is brought face to face with fascism, she is forced back onto the defensive. That is why she has until now been beaten by fascism. That is why she is weak. The democrats are right when they call the Nazi ‘abolition of unemployment’ fictitious, unstable and a stop gap measure, but their criticism will be more convincing when they themselves find and carry out a healthy and permanent solution of that same problem. It is true that fascist nationalism conflicts with the peaceful collaboration of all peoples which is a historical necessity, now that the economic integration of the globe has laid the foundation for a progressive world unity. But the Versailles system is also based on nationalism, it too is opposed to historical development, and so it cannot be set up as an effective barrier against fascism.”

Early Silone concludes on moth ball socialism

The following conclusion is Silone at his very best, as he underscores the critical importance of fighting fascism through a ‘third camp’ of independent socialist politics:

“When the socialists, with the best possible anti-fascist intentions, renounce their own program, put their own theories in moth balls, and accept the negative positions of conservative democracy, they think they are doing their bit in the struggle to crush fascism. Actually, they leave to fascism the distinction of alone daring to bring forward in public certain problems, thus driving into the fascists’ arms thousands of workers who will not accept the status quo.”

Echo Stalinism, or Islamism today.

III. Draper-Silone debate, 1956

The essence of Silone’s comments on moth ball socialism vanish by 1956, as he attempts to reason:

“The victory of Hitler would have meant the destruction for a long time of the premise for any political activity whatever and hence also for the struggle for socialism. Anti-war sabotage actions on the part of Western workers’ organisations would have led to this. It would have been a collective suicide.”

Third camp reduced to a sophism of equidistance

In contradiction to Silone-1939, a later Silone states, in defence of his support for the Atlantic imperialist bloc:

“we reject the sophism of equidistance. In the first national assembly of our organisation on 18 January 1953 a declaration was adopted in which one could read as follows. ‘It would be an error to judge our open and irreconcilable opposition to totalitarian regimes of any kind and our critical vigilance over the imperfections and contingent tendencies that exist in the democratic regimes as a position of equidistance.'”

Hal Draper

Draper replies by reminding Silone of his own earlier position:

“Very carefully Silone-1939 made clear that he did not equate bourgeois democracy with fascism, nor was he derogatory of the value of bourgeois freedoms. He was obviously aware of the existence of gentlemen who like to reduce all politics to that incontrovertible distinction. It was a question of how to fight fascism – by supporting one imperialist war bloc against another, or by fighting for a socialist transformation of society against both? – just as it is now a question of how to fight totalitarian Stalinism, which is able to win victories today only insofar as it can convince its victims that the only realistic alternative to its own rule is the continued rule of the old discredited system of capitalism.”

Socialism reduced to antiseptic imperialism

In abandoning a position that politically advances an independent, internationalist working class politics, socialism gets reduced, Draper reveals, to agitating for an antiseptic imperialism:

“Why exactly did you decide that the function of socialists in this war crisis is not to fight both imperialist blocs but rather to make sure that the ‘democratic’ imperialists remain ‘purely defensive’, unmilitaristic, free from reactionary tendencies, and otherwise unsullied – to produce a perfectly antiseptic imperialism, in other words, while international misunderstandings are to be taken care of by ‘negotiations, mediation, arbitration,’ etc?”

What’s more, Draper remonstrates, such a sterilised and impotent imperialism – willing and able to defend the purest and most democratic of human values and freedoms – is fanciful thinking:

“If you have now ‘withdrawn your positions’ from the advanced trenches of revolutionary socialism and its democracy to the more prudent rear-lines of bourgeois democracy, what experience of recent life or history has persuaded you that this is where the bastions of human values are to be best defended? Perhaps it is the capacity of the ‘democratic regimes’ for guaranteeing human liberties, as we have been finding out here in the US before, during and since the reign of McCarthy? It is perhaps the ‘democratic’ capacity to de-Nazify the German reaction under our pet Adenauer, or demilitarise the Japanese warlords. Is it perhaps the ‘democratic’ capacity to break away even from Hitlerite allies like Franco? Is it perhaps the ‘democratic’ capacity to break with butchers like Chiang Kai-shek or Syngman Rhee or the semi-fascist lords of Thailand who are America’s only ‘bastions of democracy’ in the Asian world?…”

Draper concludes:

“precisely because socialism faces its crisis, is it not the duty of every socialist who has not been overcome by despair to resist when ‘they try to force on us the dilemma: status quo or regression’ and to devote himself [sic] to the unflagging task in whatever manner of seeking, finding and pursuing the revolutionary and democratic socialist way out of the shambles that has been made of this world by rival exploiters.”

Recommended further reading, my paper ‘The Anti-Imperialism of Fools’: A Cautionary Story on the Revolutionary Socialist Vanguard of England’s Post-9/11 Anti-War Movement

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