POLITICS FEBRUARY 10, 1932
IT IS CURIOUS to read today the writings of the American liberals in the days just before the depression. No matter how realistic they seemed to be, they all had a way of ending in bursts of language that left you blank. Consider, for example, the conclusion of Stuart Chase's pamphlet on "Waste and the Machine Age." Stuart Chase is perhaps the vividest writer of the liberal camp; he has an unusual knack of making statistics take shape as things and people. And in "The Tragedy of Waste" and his other books he worked stubbornly to disillusion us with the blessings of the American "prosperity" era. But here is his final message:
"I see before us three alternatives. We can drift with the tide as at present. We can adopt some simple formula like "government by business" or "state socialism" and thus attempt to run a dreadnaught with a donkey engine. Or we can face the full implications of the machine, relying on no formulas, with nothing to guide us but cur naked intelligence and a will to conquer."
"The stars, alas, predict the first; Russia proved the futility of the second when the Marxian formula gave way to the New Economic Policy; the last is the great adventure—the boldest, most exhilarating, most dangerous adventure that ever challenged the intelligence and spirit of mankind. From our brains have sprung a billion horses, now running wild and almost certain sooner or later to run amuck. Where are the rulers with their whirling ropes; where the light-hearted youths to mount, be thrown and rise to mount again"
But what did all this mean? Evidently, what was lacking was not light-hearted youths—the colleges and schools were full of them—but any explicit directions to them on the part of Stuart Chase.
And here is the conclusion of Walter Lippmann's chapter on "The Business of the Great Society" in "A Preface to Morals"—a book which gives an excellent account of the situation of the intelligent modern man who finds that all the moral motives have evaporated:
"The more perfectly we understand the implications of the machine technology upon which our civilization is based, the easier it will be for us to live with it. We shall discern the ideals of our industry in the necessities of industry itself. They are the direction in which it must evolve if it is to fulfill itself. That is what ideals are. They are not hallucinations. They are not a collection of pretty and casual preferences. Ideals are an imaginative understanding of that which is desirable in that which is possible. As we discern the ideals of the machine technology we can consciously pursue them, knowing that we are not vainly trying to impose our casual prejudices, but that we are in harmony with the age we live in."
But what did this really mean? What is this Machine Technology which is apotheosized as a transcendent being with ideals to which it is necessary for human beings to adapt themselves? One had supposed that man, the toolmaking animal, had himself created technique and that it existed only in so far as. he practised it. "In harmony with the age we live in"—but are not we—the Lippmanns and the people who read him—the age we live in as much as anybody? Mr. Lippmann, having shown out the old-time God, ushers in a new and much less plausible one called "Machine Technology" in whose awful sight even he, the professional political philosopher, cannot presume to play an authoritative part in the age in which he lives!
Finally, here is the conclusion of the Beards' "Rise of American Civilization." Mr. Charles A. Beard is one of the best American writers of his generation and "The Rise of American Civilization" is a masterpiece of economy and organization. Never perhaps has an immense historical subject been more beautifully and completely articulated in so small a compass. And never have the proportions of popular legend been altered with a bolder and firmer hand. With the Beards, every sentence, every clause, carries its cool facts as the sentences in other books carry nouns and verbs—and the fighting of the Civil War shrinks to three pages while the origins of the forces that produced it take up a couple of hundred. When the Beards got to the end of their story, however, they could only write a brilliant essay on the present—no doubt the best of all the essays because it was the work of wider ranging as well as more concrete minds than the woolly generalizations that used to come out in the magazines m such quantities; but—what was disappointing—they could only end this essay as follows:
"If the generality of opinion, as distinguished that of poignant specialists, was taken into account, there was no doubt about the nature of the future m America. [They still talk like historians writing about the past, but evidently they are giving their own opinion about the present.] The most common note of assurance was belief in unlimited progress—the continuous fulfillment of the historic idea which had slowly risen through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to a position of commanding authority. Concretely it meant an invulnerable faith in democracy, in the ability of the undistinguished masses, as contrasted with heroes and classes, to meet by reasonably competent methods the issues raised in the flow of time—a faith in the efficacy of that new and mysterious instrument of the modern mind, "the invention of invention," moving from one technological triumph to another, overcoming the exhaustion of crude natural resources and energies, effecting an ever wider distribution of the blessings of civilization—health, security, material goods, knowledge, leisure and esthetic appreciation, and through the cumulative forces of intellectual and artistic reactions, conjuring from the vast deeps of the nameless and unknown creative imagination of the noblest order, subduing physical things to the empire of the spirit—doubting not the capacity of the Power that had summoned into being all patterns of the past and present, living and dead, to fulfill its endless destiny."
"If so, it is the dawn, not the dusk, of the gods."
Again, what did this mean? Mr. Beard may not have wanted to run the danger of being mistaken for a "poignant specialist," but one bad expected something more definite from him than this. the "invulnerable faith in democracy" of his peroration seems a little out of place at the end of a history which bas been so largely preoccupied with extremely undemocratic situations of group-conflict and group-exploitation; and the "faith in the efficacy of that new and mysterious instrument of the human mind, the invention of invention, moving from one technological triumph to another," etc., seems more incongruous still. That new and mysterious instrument"—"the more perfectly we understand the implications of the machine technology." Mr. Beard, who bas just been pointing out to us with such acumen how every political movement, every artistic tendency, every migration, every war, has depended on somebody's interest, finally makes everybody's interest depend on an apotheosized abstraction—that "new and mysterious instrument" that moves "from one technological triumph to another" and conjures "from the vasty deeps of the nameless and unknown creative imagination of the noblest order."
"If so"—but if what?—"it is the dawn, not the dusk, of the gods." What gods? and why this talk of dusk?
One accepted this sort of thing before the depression even though one could never see quite what it meant nor how it followed from what went before. And one bas no right to complain about it now: it is too easy to be wise after the event.
But it is rather disquieting today to find Mr. Lippmann, Mr. Beard and Mr. Chase still continuing in the same vein. Mr. Chase's "Declaration of Independence" in Harper's is a meditation which, though full of all kinds of admirable sentiments expressed with considerable eloquence, seems to take place a long way off from the scene of action: "America is too fine a land to be longer drugged by the infantile slogans and dazzled by the glittering gadgets of shoddy speculators. It deserves a civilization as great as its majestic distances, its rolling prairies, its mighty rivers and massed sierras," etc. He appeals to the "intelligent minority" to act their age and escape from the standards of golf-playing country-dub-joining suburban society. But what to do? In the name of what?
Mr. Beard in an article in the same number of Harper's in which be recommends as "much planning" as "is necessary," winds up with a vision of the future even giddier than that at the end of his history: "And, to paraphrase Milton, methinks puissant America, mewing her mighty youth, will yet kindle her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam, purge and unscale her long abused sight, while timorous and flocking birds, with those that love the twilight, flutter about amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble would prognosticate a year of sects and schisms." But what does Mr. Beard think she means? Unless she receives a sudden revelation, I don't see how she is to avoid a year or many years as the battleground of sects and schisms who want her to mean different things. And in two articles in Scribner's, "Rushlights in Our Darkness" and "A Search for a Center," he does little to supply this revelation. He tells us that about all we can do is fall back on a "philosophy of ethical reconciliation"—which the old master of social actualities then proceeds to adumbrate in a void from which the social actualities of the present have been completely swept away.
And Mr. Lippmann, trusting nowadays in the bankers and attempting tactfully to slip a few liberal notions into the minds of Herald Tribune readers, is coming to chill us more and more with the suspicion that all his beautiful diplomacy bas ended in his coming back from the ride with the liberal inside and the smile on the face of the banker. One of the most striking things about all these writers is their avoidance of the subject of socialism and communism, or their misrepresentation, when they do touch on it, of what is going on in Russia, According to Chase in the passage quoted above, the Russians "proved the futility" of socialism "when the Marxian formula gave way to the New Economic Policy." But the N.E.P. period has passed and the Five Year Plan is in its fourth year. Mr. Chase changes the subject to Mexico and seems to imply that we should all be much better off if we were able to live as if modern industry didn't exist. More recently, however, he has gone so far as to contrast the balance-sheet of the Soviets with that of the United States. Mr. Beard, whose American history up to the very last pages might almost be an elaboration of certain passages on capitalist expansion in "Das Kapital," is evidently so anxious to fight shy of communism that in his article reviewing proposed policies of social salvation he barely mentions the philosophy of the Soviets, though he discusses Mussolini at length.
In an earlier article in The Forum—"A 'Five Year Plan' for America"—he makes the following points against Russian Communism: that its policy of planning was "an afterthought and never would have been even partially realized bad it not been for the technological assistance of Western capitalism"; that "the Russian plan" is not a real plan anyway, because "for more than ten years the Russian government has pursued a zigzag course, trying one expedient after another"; and that "it rules by tyranny and terror, with secret police, espionage and arbitrary executions." Well, why on earth should the first two of these facts be put forward, as Beard does specifically put them forward, as objections to "a dictatorship in the name of the proletariat"? As a matter of fact, Marx had said that communism would have to make use of the technological developments of capitalism. That, in fact, is one of his principal points; so that there is little sense in Beard's statement that the Bolsheviks "laid aside Marx" and "took up Frederick Winslow Taylor": industrial efficiency as it existed before Taylor appeared to give his name to it is what "Das Kapital" is mostly about. In any case, what difference does it make whether the Bolsheviks' idea of planning was an afterthought or not?—and what is there damaging about their having been obliged to follow a zigzag course? Why should it be a matter for surprise or reproach that they could not establish communism overnight? And as for the third item of his indictment, what on earth makes Mr. Beard talk as if the capitalist government of the United States did not rule "by tyranny and terror, with secret police, espionage and arbitrary executions?" Mr. Beard must know that the "personal liberty" which he asserts that the American tradition safeguards but thinks that the Soviets suppress, is not today worth a cent as soon as you step out of your owning-class orbit, and that you are lucky if you do not land in jail or get run out of town or shot, like the reporters, Brookwood organizers and American Civil Liberties representatives who tried to lend a hand at Harlan or Lawrence, In his later article, he gets around communism by treating it as if it were merely a form like another of the belief in pure economics: "Economics in- Russia," he says, "did not automatically supply the great illumination," But it is not economics as a pure science which is the issue: it is economics in the sense of the difference in standards of living between an exploiting and an exploited class; it is economics in the sense of the attempt to abolish such social classes. It seems absurd to say it of a man of Mr, Beard's record and attainments, but it looks as if Marx and Lenin Were playing the part of bogies upon which all these writers were having a hard time to shut their doors. In a recent article in The New Republic on the promotion of the German navy under the Empire, Mr. Beard made a point at the beginning of reassuring his readers that the facts he was about to reveal would not give any comfort to the Marxists, and then went on to describe a case of the exploitation of patriotism by capital which illustrated Marx's theory superbly.
And Mr. Lippmann has shown himself the master of them all by exalting himself to a plane where he is able to tell the readers of The Herald Tribune that Russian society is the same thing as American, but only as yet in a lower stage of development.
Not that these writers do not, so far as one can tell, contemplate that American society shall ultimately adopt some form of socialism, Mr. Lippmann, in "A Preface to Morals," expressed the belief that American business was on its way to socializing itself. And there was a common assumption among liberals before the slump that America was working toward the same goal as Russia by an inverse capitalistic process. That was. In fact, the liberal's only excuse for being.
The attitude is very clearly seen in "The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens," published only last year. In this extraordinarily interesting book, we have the story of an American born in the sixties who acutely studies at first hand and in all its ramifications the corruption of the American social structure, who watches the political reform movements from the inside and who finally comes to the conclusion, as the result of contact with Socialists a"" Single-Taxers, that it is the economic system and not merely the crimes of bad men in office which is responsible lO"" the social diseases of the time; who consorts with the American radicals of the early years of the century; beholds the Mexican revolution, for lack of fundamental socialist principles, lapse back into the hands of the privileged classes; sees the Kerensky revolution in Russia superseded by the Bolsheviks, who base their policy upon Marxist principles—greatly to the dismay of many American socialists, who are horrified by the actual spectacle or the realization of their aims; but finally returns to the United States to find his boyhood home in California inhabited by a liberal Governor who refuses to pardon Mooney and Billings, only to base his hopes of American salvation on Henry Ford's high wages and the calling by Hoover after the first stock-market crash of a conference of leading business men, and even to look comfortably forward to a time when the bootleggers shall have grown out of their "criminal stage" and "having bought their way all through politics to a place beside the power trust and the railroads," established themselves as a respectable trust. He even reaches a point of enthusiasm where he '* able to say of the autobiographical boloney ghost-written by Samuel Crowther for Ford that "it might well be the Bible, as Ford is the prophet, of business."
I do not know whether Mr. Steffens still so confidently swears by this Bible, I have heard intimations that he does not. But these opinions, even after the depression had commenced, on the part of a man of Mr. Steffens unusual intelligence and remarkably wide social and political experience, are significant of the effects of car. "prosperity" psychology on the minds of our critics.
Ford the prophet had become our favorite myth—conjured up by the acuteness of our need to get some kind o democratic hero out of our advanced and inflated stage O' capitalism. George Soule, in an article in The Virginia Quarterly, has shown how, though the Ford of legend never really existed, it was found necessary to invent him. It had been the custom of capitalism in the past to save money in manufacturing as far as the unions would let it by paying labor as little as possible: it did not have imagination to foresee that, with so many people thus impoverished, few would be able to buy its products. Ford, for reasons which from the best accounts were by no means primarily dictated by overflowing benevolence toward labor—the opportunity for big publicity and holding out a bait to strong and rapid workers—undertook without union pressure—he had forbidden organization in his factories—to raise the worker's pay. He also undertook to bring a luxury within the reach of the masses. At the time of the voyage of the Peace Ship, moreover, he had lent himself in what seems to have been a real burst of magnanimity to the projects of certain internationalists. But bow could we have hoped that Ford's few eccentric gleams of idealism and democratic feeling would transform or meant the beginning of a transformation of the vast greedy system which he understood so little? Under pressure from his business back home, he got cold feet on the Peace Ship before it landed; and since then the system has been steadily transforming him into its own harsh and narrow likeness. Today he is as badly off as anyone and his workers have had to pay for his losses like the workers in any other plant.
Who today in any camp on the left can have the optimism to believe that capitalism is capable of reforming itself? And who today can look forward with confidence to any outcome from the present chaos short of the establishment of a socialistic society—not like the Russian: how could it be? America is not Russia—but with this in common with Russia: that it shall aim to abolish social classes and private enterprise for private profit?
Yet these liberals, who presumably aim at socialism, still apparently pin great hopes on the capitalists. They draw up schemes for "planned economies" which are designed to preserve the capitalist system while eliminating some of its worst features—though so far as one can tell from what they write, they haven't the ghost of an idea of an agency to put even these into effect. The liberals of today are not a part of a progressive movement like the liberals of the Wilson-Roosevelt era. One can only suppose that they are hoping for some such movement, though it is not clear where it is coming from nor why, after Roosevelt and Wilson, they should expect it to accomplish what they want. Assume even that Franklin Roosevelt is made President at the next election—assume even that be is induced to pay attention to the proposals of one of the liberal "plans." Isn't it evident that these proposals would ultimately be reduced to the same status as Herbert Croly's "Promise of American Life" by the time it had been brayed in the mortar of Roosevelt's campaign speeches or as George Record's socialism by the time it had been filtered through Wilson ? Since there is no Wilson or T. R. in sight, would they even fare so well ? It would be the capitalists, not the liberals, who would do the planning; and they would plan to save their own skins at the expense of whoever bad to bleed.
Roosevelt and Wilson were both owning-class men who, though their imaginations went somewhat beyond their class, never did anything seriously to injure its interests. They tried to save the system they were on top of by a few reforms and a great deal of sheer hot air. Now what one wants to ask the liberals of today is bow they can hope to get a new creative statesmanship out of the psychology of that owning-class. One wonders to bow great an extent they may have come to share that psychology themselves.
For one feels, as one reads them today, that, in spite of their expressions of moral and esthetic dissatisfaction, they are still sold like other middle-class Americans on the Values of the middle-class world which they criticize. You look in vain in any of their recent utterances for any really damaging attack on these values. Stuart Chase has come out strongly in favor of the Americans' playing less golf; but be manages to sound as smug as if he were playing golf every day. Desperate capitalists who, finding their system breaking up in their hands and searching their hearts as to bow they ought to act, should consult Mr. Chase in Harper's, would be likely to conclude that American life was sounder and more placid than they bad supposed. And when Walter Lippmann tells people over the radio that "we must face some more reduction in the costs of retail goods, of rents and of labor," there is no question whom be means by "we." Mr. Lippmann's "we" are not the workers who have to face having their wages reduced, but the employers who have to face reducing them. And Mr. Lippmann is ready to do anything in his power to help them muster the morale to face it.
Without, no doubt, being conscious of it, these writers seem unwilling to face the implications of the middle-class acceptance of the status quo—which involves at the present time the forcing-down of the working-class below the bare subsistence level in order that the owning-class may not be obliged to sacrifice comforts and luxuries—a state of things always easy to ignore for the reason noted by Henry George after the depression of the seventies: that to force people down below a certain level is to force them out of existence altogether. In any case, you bear very little about it in what these students of society have been writing.
In fact, though they are better informed and more enlightened than the average American business man, their imagination does not extend much further nor their logic cut much deeper. Their political thinking is mediocre because their solidarity is middle-class. And this is a disappointment to one who bas read them in the past with profit. Writers of their intellectual eminence have no business to succumb to the influence of standards of living. What is at the bottom of the capitalist crisis is class-differences in standards of living with the special habits and ideas they involve and of which it is as bard for the ordinary person to divest himself as for the leopard to change his spots. It is bard for anybody; but if our professional illuminati can't break through them to some larger grasp of the world which is cracking up around us, we deserve all to be cooked together.