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James Burnham

What Is Collective Security?

(February 1938)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 7, 12 February 1938, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The current war program of the Stalinists is summed up in the phrase, “Collective Security.” Earl Browder’s half of the New Republic debate with Charles A, Beard, subsequently reprinted in The Daily Worker, is entitled For Collective Security. The Communist Party has recently issued several pamphlets with the same title. We must enquire further into the true meaning of Collective Security.

At first glance, the program of Collective Security seems reasonable and practical to many people.

“Clearly,” argues Browder, “in this relation of forces, there does exist the possibility of preventing the spread of war, and of extinguishing the wars going on, provided the peace-loving 90 per cent can arrive at a concerted program of action, at least to a degree in some relation to that of the concerted action of the Triple Alliance of the ‘anti-Communist’ bloc of fascist states ... Considering the economic resources of the war-makers, it would clearly be sufficient to bring them quickly to a halt if the United States, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union should jointly declare an embargo upon all economic transactions with the aggressors ...”

How can anyone object to such a calm and virtuous proposal? No wonder Browder is indignant at the scoundrels who insist on criticism!

Origin of Collective Security

But let us, approaching this as all questions from the point of view of the interests of the working class, ask: First, even assuming that Collective Security night preserve peace, is it a correct program; and, second, whether it can in fact preserve peace – or whether it is even designed to preserve peace. The answer to both of these questions requires a brief account of the origin of the idea of Collective Security.

The idea of Collective Security is not an invention of Browder, nor of Litvinov nor of Stalin. It arose in the camp of the Allied Powers during the latter part of the War of 1914–18, and was part of the basis for the construction of the “Versailles system.” Its chief early advocate was Aristide Briand, the renegade from socialism who became during that time an outstanding spokesman for French imperialism.

The theory of Collective Security was as follows: The Allied Powers had won the war, and taken for themselves the rich spoils of conquest. France and Great Britain, particularly, being satisfied with the results, glutted with colonies and other booty, wanted a method of protecting the spoils against any rival who might try to make a bid for them, either from among the defeated Central Powers, or from their own less satisfied allies. Briand wanted to solidify the imperialist division of the world as it existed at the time of the Versailles Treaty.

To Solidify Versailles Settlement

Collective Security was the plan for accomplishing just this solidification. All of the nations (united in the League) were to take joint steps against any nation which might attempt to break through the existing imperialist division. In addition, it was of course understood that collective action would above all be exercised against a bid for power by the working class of any nation – which would naturally be the greatest of all threats against the existing imperialist division.

It was as if two coalitions of gangs had been fighting for control of a racket. The winning gang, having consolidated its victory, decreed that henceforth “peace and order” were to reign over Brooklyn. All the gangsters together would take collective action against any rival gang which attempted to muscle in. And, of course, similar collective action would likewise be taken against any group of honest citizens who tried to break up the rackets themselves.

In the case of the gang, it is clear enough that Collective Action is hardly the answer to the problems of good citizens. Their interest is to smash all of the gangs, and to get rid altogether of the rackets.

“Peace” to Protect Imperialist Gangsters

The case of the imperialist powers is exactly the same. Even if Collective Security could preserve “peace,” that would mean simply protecting the dominant imperialist positions of the Anglo-French bloc; protecting their right to exploit the major part of the world; safeguarding their rule of starvation and terror in India, the Near East, Indo-China, Africa; guaranteeing for eternity their right to the exploitation and oppression of the workers in the home countries.

The workers have absolutely no interest in the preservation of any imperialist division whatever, no matter what nation or group of nations a given division favors. Their interest is to overthrow the whole imperialist system; and, if mankind is not to revert to barbarism, to do so in the shortest possible time. The program of Collective Security, which is the program for the preservation of an Anglo-French dominated imperialist system, is thus crassly and directly counter-revolutionary.

However, in any case the assumption that the program of Collective Security might preserve peace is directly contrary to fact. Italy, Germany, Japan do not begin military operations, do not try to upset the existing division of the world because Mussolini, Hitler and the Mikado are madmen or “war-lovers.” They are driven to military adventure by iron necessity. Their only alternative is economic and social death for their own national capitalism, and they are fighting desperately against that death. No conceivable system of treaties or Leagues or “peaceful economic sanctions” can stop them. A man faced with certain death in one direction will fight against any odds in the other.

The originators of Collective Security know all this. And that is why they have never pretended to themselves that Collective Security is in reality a “peace program.” It is a program to preserve peace (i.e., the status quo) as long as possible and convenient to the dominant powers; and in doing so to prepare for war they know to be inevitable on the most favorable physical and moral terms.

It Cements Military Alliances

Collective Security is a way of cementing military alliances in one of the imperialist coalitions. It has the great advantage of making the members of the opposing coalition appear to be the “breakers of the peace,” thereby permitting the mobilization of popular sentiment against them.

This last feature explains why Browder has now so ardently taken up the slogan of Collective Security. He knows, as well as Briand knew and Auriol and Chautemps and Daladier know today, that Collective Security is in the last analysis not a program for peace but a program for war. And he is using Collective Security in his attempt to make the war which he believes will aid his master popular among the people of the United States. Collective Security is his banner for enlisting the masses in this country in the next war of American imperialism.

(This is the second in a series of four articles on the New Republic debate over “Collective Security” between Earl Browder and Charles A. Beard. The remaining articles will deal with Beard’s “isolationist” reply to Browder and with the Marxist alternative to Collective Security.)

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