It Is Later Than You Think

by Max Lerner
[Viking, $2.50]
MR. LERNER has succeeded, in a provocative 250 pages, in posing most of the questions which are to-day troubling the American radical as well as most other Americans earnestly seeking to defend the ‘democratic way of life.’ Here is a sampling of the more challenging ones for which Mr. Lerner has sought and found his own answers: How can the democratic state’s fight the Fascist ones, without, amid the totalitarian urgencies of war, yielding up in the end their own democratic liberties? How can the changes, everywhere apparent in the structure of traditional capitalism, be made transitional to a wider democracy and not to a totalitarian dictatorship, whether Fascist or Stalinist? And for the radical: Do the failures of the Marxist parties throughout the world, the rise of Fascism, and the freezing of the Soviet Union into a dictatorship, mean that the Marxian hope and the Marxian method for the emancipation of mankind are all wrong? All of these challenges are admirably summarized in a statement of the book’s theme on an early page_ ‘The great political battle of our generation is the battle over what democracy means and how it can survive.’
Unfortunately Mr. Lerner endows the posing of his questions with more audacity than he does his quest for the answers. Indeed, whenever his argument for a ‘democratic collectivism’ points to some astringent conclusion, one feels the author hastily blunts his point in order to spare either the reader’s or the author’s sensibilities. There is, for example, a fascinating section called ‘Logbook of the Radical Mind,’ in which Mr. Lerner lists what he calls the six errors of Marxism. The practical answer to most of these ‘errors’ by Communists to-day is the People’s Front, which Mr. Lerner heartily endorses. ‘We have erred, the Marxians may say,’Mr. Lerner continues, ‘but . . .’ The point the author omits is that the Communists do not admit that Marx or they themselves have erred. The Stalinist professes the Marxian faith, but acts differently in nearly all the points skillfully noted by Mr. Lerner. This dichotomy between faith and practice, long condemned by non-Stalinist revolutionists, Mr. Lerner does not touch on in his book. But may it not be a key to much of the disillusionment of the radicals which Mr. Lerner so ably delineates?
Again, the author is bold and militant in his attacks on Fascism, as Well as in his analysis of the brutal consequences of oligarchic trends in American capitalism. These pages should win him a sympathetic hearing from all readers seeking a technique to preserve and extend the democratic way of life. But his spirit of inquiry seems to fail when he turns to the totalitarian denial of democracy which he admits finding in the Soviet Union. He begins by boldly noting that the Stalinist state ‘crushes opposition . . . withering those variants of thought and outlook on which the ultimate health of a state depends,’and finally ‘lets itself in for the instability of the prætorian state, with its succession of military governments and adventurist leaders.’ These words breathe the spirit of ’militant democracy.’ But Mr. Lerner’s conclusion is merely that the establishment of a monolithic state was ‘probably necessary’ for survival, though for socialism in the long run ‘unwise.3 Here — as at other crucial moments — Mr. Lerner, after leading his readers into battle, simply retires from the fray.
In spite, however, of these abrupt lapses in logic and audacity. Mr. Lerner’s pages dealing with democratic collectivism, corruption of power, civil liberties, majority rule, and especially the section on what he terms the ‘crisis state,’are an invaluable stimulus for any man seeking light on the problems of modern democracy. The publication of the book may in fact be of the greatest importance if others follow to carry out what Mr. Lerner advocates but does not exemplify — a ‘militant,’ ‘affirmative,’ and ‘tough-minded’ tackling of the all-important questions it poses for our troubled times.