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Operational Thinking for Survival

Lawrence Dennis’s much neglected and long-forgotten masterpiece from 1969. Available from Amazon.

Operational Thinking for Survival by Lawrence Dennis - Hardcover ...

“Operational Thinking for Survival” is Lawrence Dennis’s 1969 follow up book to his 1940 book “The Dynamics of War and Revolution”. It would be worth the while of the modern reader of either book to read the other and thus obtain a more comprehensive picture of Dennis’s thought. And reading Dennis’s thought is worthwhile as he is both learned and incisive and completely outside of the well worn paths left by the big batallions of mainstream liberal and conservative commentators. As a young diplomat Dennis protested US gun boat diplomacy in Nicaragua and went on to provide a radical corporatist critique of America’s foreign and economic policies in from the late 1930s. An isolationist and radical right dissident he ended up charged with sedition by Roosevelt administration, the trial was drawn out and eventually collapsed in a farce. Following the war Dennis became a right wing critic of both McCarthyism and the Cold War.

In “The Dynamics of War and Revolution” Dennis made several predictions for the upcoming decades. These included his belief that America would enter WW2 and that the returning troops would face a renewed depression. Mass unemployment would be unsustainable and both traditional capitalism and democracy would be in peril and ultimately pushed aside as a new technocratic elite emerged from the expanded war industry sector. The technocrats would restore employment and stability through ‘pyramid building’ projects. Elsewhere new pan-continental powers would dominate the planet and the British Empire would meet it’s demise.

Many of Dennis’s 1940 predictions failed to pan out but it can be argued that they were a ‘near miss’ . For example, Dennis made his WW2 predictions before the Nazi-Soviet war began, six months before the Pearl Harbor attack. Had the US intervened before Hitler’s anti-Soviet war had been launched, and if Hitler had delayed or postponed his war on Russia to concentrate on the US and UK, it is likely the war would not have been as easily won for the US as it was. Similarly in the immediate post-war period there was a widespread reaction against state economic planning motivated in large part due to concerns of the risk to traditional liberties planning carried. Dennis in 1940 also believed that traditional liberal democracy made effective and rational state planning impossible and predicted the later, made inevitable by the economic crisis, would push aside the former. Had a renewed Great Depression greeted the returning troops the great planning debate may have ended differently. Some of Dennis’s predictions seem to have come about, if in somewhat attenuated form. He predicted the growth and power of what Eisenhower christened the “military industrial complex”, Dennis saw this new combination as ultimately taking command of the economy, and argued that the federal government’s war against racist regimes abroad would “blowback” domestically engendering a revolt against the segregationist system in place in the southern states. In practice the civil rights movement did prove to be something of an insurrection even if it arrived perhaps a decade later than Dennis anticipated.

Dennis’s 1969 book is called “Operational Thinking for Survival”. He sees survival as more important than either reform or progress. By “operational thinking” he means thinking that is pragmatic, empirical and unsentimental. He sees thinking in ‘the social sciences’, economics and politics as idealistic rather than operational, and true to his technocratic roots, he urges engineering and scientific style rationalism to replace the “monistic” thinking of these fields. This operational thinking critique provides the overall framework for Dennis’s book, all the rest of his observations are essentially fruit hanging off this tree. Unfortunately it’s the tree that is weak, despite the value of the fruit. Dennis doesn’t really show us how to escape from monism and doesn’t seem to be aware that previous attempts to apply technocratic solutions to social phenomena have been miserable failures. A discussion of scientism would be useful but Dennis doesn’t deliver it. Still the fruit is worth eating.

There are some differences between the Dennis of 1940 and the Dennis of 1969. According to historian Ronald Radosh, Dennis had softened his critique of capitalism after the war and had started to champion traditional entrepreneurs versus the corporate managers, he formerly saw, James Burnham style, as the vanguard of a corporatist revolution. Radosh also says Dennis emerged from his Sedition Trial experiences as an incisive critic of McCarthyism. The later of these two changes is clearly on display in the later book. Still there are plenty of continuities between the old Dennis and the new Dennis.The 1969 book updates and refines Dennis’s analysis and provides some explanations as to where his 1940 book may have gone wrong. “Operational Thinking for Survival” is addressed to what he sees as the four great challenges of the 20th century. These are mass unemployment, war, the revolt of the masses and over-population. In practice he only real deals with the first three.

Continuing from his 1940 theme Dennis maintains his “underconsumptionist” critque of capitalism, the view that market economies, left to themselves, will fail to generate sufficient demand to maintain full employment. Dennis would be labelled a Keynesian and provides a brief critique of Henry Hazlitt’s critique of “the New Economics” as an appendix. Dennis says “only World War II ended the Depression”. He notes that it was Hitler who was the first ruler to use the armament route out of depression, a path FDR followed after 1938 and that the US continued on through the “cold war” era. Dennis here provides, from the right, a critique of the “permanent war economy”, to use a term coined by Charles E Wilson, Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense and former CEO of General Motors. Dennis argued America’s postwar prosperity was being kept afloat by what J.K. Galbraith (another thinker influenced by the 1930s ‘technocracy’ movement) called “military Keynesianism”. Dennis points out that the US economy in the 1950s was more dependent on arms spending that the German economy was in the late 1930s. One new feature of his 1969 book is his discussion of war debt. This helps flesh out his picture of both why a great depression followed WW1 and why it didn’t follow WW2. The debt retirement policies of the 1920s fostered a deflationist trend, in the post-war period, the huge war debts were reduced by inflation not deflation, a policy Dennis argues is both sustainable and needs to be maintained.

He says ‘modern war must be socialistic’ and argues that as most communist advances occurred in the wake of war, anti-communist conservatives should be the strongest opponents, rather than (as they generally were by the mid-1960s) strong proponents, of war policies. His critique of the stupidity of attempting to halt the spread of communist and proto-communist ideas by McCarthyist means makes this a double punch. Dennis renews his 1940 critique of collective security and it’s new manifestation in the cold war against communism. He argues that realism and survival required the adoption of a policy Dennis calls “tolerance” , that we would call, a decade after this book was written, “detente”.

In one telling sentence Dennis even remarks offhand on the aburdity of any future American occupation of the middle east. So how to we evaluate Dennis’s 1969 predictions from the vantage point of 2006? Again his record is not perfect, but there are some bullseyes and near misses. He fails to predict the fall of communism, but he was hardly alone there and he views the growth of the “Afro-Asian movement”, Third Worldism, as both stronger and more unified than in fact it turned out to be. Of course, to some extent, Nixon’s alliance with China, and the economic opening of China to the west forestalled the development of a third Peking led bloc. Less than a decade after he wrote western economies would be mired in “stagflation” and the retreat from Keynesianism and the inflationism he supported would become a rout. The old school economics he criticised as monist conservative idealism would revive with the rise of monetarism and the renewed popularity of market economics, even if it’s Thatcher-Reagan manifestation would have more to do with rhetoric than actual economic reform. The great depression he feared would arise if the inflationist pump was turned off failed to materialise. Still detente would emerge under Nixon. My guess is that Dennis would applaud Kissinger’s realpolitik as an example of “Operational Thinking”. Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslav communist heretic and cold war critic from the other side of the Iron Curtain, would argue that detente was what ultimately undermined Soviet rule. To Djilas the western ‘collective security’ system of NATO and alike, was actually counter-productive and slowed the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. NATO enabled Moscow to rein in decentralist tendencies on their side of the wall. So it’s just possible Dennis may have been more right than he knew here. His analysis of the permanent war economy would also seem to be prescient, even if some of his economics can be challenged. Economist Robert Higgs has argued that despite appearances WW2 did not end the depression, it was postwar demobilisation that ended it.

So where are we now? Despite the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the peace dividend is as elusive as ever and a new global war has replaced the old cold war. This is, of course, a course of events Dennis’s thinking probably would have predicted.

As far as this reviewer knows, OPERATIONAL THINKING FOR SURVIVAL was Lawrence Dennis’ last book. Dennis offered intelligence, practicle solutions to the problems posed by a permanent war economy, rising debt, and insane ideological responses to the rapid changes that took place in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. He also offered intelligent suggestions to Big Communism which undermined the professional anti-communists and supposedly “staunch” conservatives.

Dennis clearly saw that mass unemployment, war, rebellion in the non-European world against both Europeans and Americans, and population explosion were four issues that had to be handled intelligently if Americans were to survive both economically and physically.

Dennis makes the connection between big military budgets and full employment. He understood that the decisions made during the New Deal and World War II almost forced a permanent war economy on Americans, and there was little that could be done about it. As far as war was considered, Dennis makes a good case that operational thinking offered better solutions than a war to the end with Big Communism which insured the possible destruction of the human race.

Dennis was also clear that the days of European empires were over, and both the Europeans and Americans should accept that fact. Dennis argued that those in the non-western part of the world should be accomodated as much as possible without any effort to get involved in their political confrontations.

Dennis was a proponent of civil liberties such as free speech and free press. He condemned those who equated dissent with supporing the forces of evil. Dennis argued that free exchange of ideas and opinions was better than dissent since such debate could offer intelligent insight. Those who claimed that there is no substitute for victory presented the ultimate evil of nuclear war if their views were taken too seriously. Dennis refuted stale arguement that cultural exchanges with countries of the Eastern Bloc corrputed American students by arguing that Eastern Bloc students would be much more impressed with the prosperity and easy life style in the United States than American students with living conditions behind what was called the Iron Curtian.

Dennis’ views on money, debt retirement, and inflation are worthy of note. Dennis argued that gradual inflation was the only alternative to deflation and depression. His argument was that to pay the national debt would require more taxes and less consumer and investment spending resulting in a declinning stock market. Dennis offers the prospect that inflation would help erode the burden of national debt since the money repaid later was worth less than it was when borrowed. When conservatives whined about how awful inflation was, Dennis responded that the World War I and World War II was also awful which caused this debt and inflation. The conservatives were the ones who pushed both these wars. Dennis also refuted the conservatives who whined that Americans were exposed to socialism. Dennis puts such long winded complaining in perspective when he commented that all modern wars are socialistic. If a loose definition of socialism means government control over the economy, both World War I and World War II resulted in such controls with the blessing of these same conservatives. One should that the self righteous conservatives were the ones who benefitted well from military expendatures.

This book has had limited exposure, and it deserves better. Dennis accurately predicted future trends, and younger readers should read this book to better understand their possible future. The book is written in a lucid style, and readers who cannot grasp the book after a first reading should give it another read and take their time.

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