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The Dream That Was Lost

ISSUE:  Spring 1941

The Dream We Lost: Soviet Russia Then and Now. By Freda Utley. New York: The John Day Company. $2.75. Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy. By Sidney Hook. New York: The John Day Company. $3.00. Marxism: Is U Science! By Max Eastman. New York: W. W. Norton. $3.00. To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History. By Edmund Wilson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $4.00.

Every one of these four books could be entitled “The Dream We Lost.” It was a great dream. To every man and nation comes the choice: selfish greed or brotherliness; these four writers chose the more arduous, the less conventional path. They had their place reserved among the profiteers, and they spurned it. This resolve may be called socialism; it might as well be named the Christian spirit: love thy neighbor; or again, the sense of honor: noblesse oblige. No self-respecting man can feast with an easy conscience while others starve; least of all can he bring himself to believe that feasting is a just reward, starving a just punishment. Praise be to God that he created Man, and not Homo Economicus.

Perhaps Freda Utley has given up that noble dream. She seems to have relapsed into Chamberlainism pure and simple, and to have accepted the profit motive at its most Coolidgean. Life has dealt harshly with her, and we shall refrain from judging. The other three have remained true to their essential faith. What all four have lost is an earthly hope: the belief that Marxism could magically create a millennium, and that such a millennium had actually begun in Russia twenty-four years ago.

All four are fiercely anti-Stalinist. They hate the murderous bureaucracy of Stalin with the hatred of frustrated religious fervor. On a less lofty plane, they hate Stalin because he justifies the jeers of men they despise: “So this is your Utopia I” That enmity, burning like the wrath of the prophets, informs every one of these volumes, although it is directly expressed in one chapter only of Sidney Hook’s, in a single page of Edmund Wilson’s. It gives a passionate ring to every word of Freda Utley.

In a serious debate, her book is the only one that can safely be dismissed. She is an eye-witness, but one with no claim to impartiality. She married a Russian, and lived for years in Russia. But the British are notoriously inadaptable; on her own admission, she never had a full command of the lan-guage; and for months she had to share an apartment with her husband’s divorced wife, in whom “the remnants of bourgeois ideology were very strong.” Arcadi seems to have accepted with true Russian equanimity the incredible discomfort of Soviet life, including two inimical wives using the same kitchen. Although not a Party member, he showed infinite patience and tolerance and never lost his socialist faith. Finally he was arrested on a shadowy and mysterious charge —unguarded words uttered in Japan several years before. She has never seen him again,

She has a personal feud against the regime, as the widow of a man lynched or unjustly electrocuted would have in this country. The wrong she has suffered, however grievous, is no argument against the system as a whole, unless it can be proved that the case is general, In literature, the human document alone is effective: we do not want to hear about the average migrant, but about the Joads. In sociology, statistics must intervene. And Freda Utley’s use of statistics is decidedly unconvincing.

Nothing in her arraignment of Stalin justifies the virulent pro-Nazi-ism of the last chapters. She accepts with the simplicity of a neophyte the essential contentions of Hitler.

Trained in economic investigation, she nevertheless swallows the myth of the “have-not” nation: “At Versailles, we sought to enslave Germany economically.” But Germany, unravaged, had vastly greater resources than France, the type of the selfish “haves.” In 95 per cent of the habitable globe—everywhere except in some of the French colonies— Germany enjoyed exactly the same trading opportunities as France. Without an empire, she managed in six years to create a war machine, the cost of which staggers the “plutocracies.”

But Freda Utley wants Germany to have an empire “east of the Rhine,” built through the subjugation of the minor nations—Poland, Czecho-Slovakia, Rumania, the Ukraine— which, as she adds in truly Nazi fashion, will be much better ruled by the Germans than by their own corrupt and incompetent upper class. She praises Chamberlain for sharing that view. She does not realize that she is thus accusing him of the most arrant double-crossing, for the professed policy of England, as a leading member of the League, was to prevent any such imperialist conquest. Her one hope, the ineradicable hope of the Chamberlain mind everywhere, is that Germany and Italy may yet “turn their arms on Russia while England is still unconquered” and “offer a peace to England enabling the latter to save herself and the Empire.” She trusts that such a peace will not be refused, “even if this entails German hegemony over the continent of Europe.” As for the American people, they had better not oppose that inevitable consummation, but attend to “their own problem of curbing their economic monopolies.” Curiously enough, this most passionate of anti-Stalinists speaks in the same voice as do the professed Stalinists among us. A mad world indeed.

The other three books are on a totally different plane. In “The Dream We Lost,” Freda Utley cries with her wounded flesh; Max Eastman, Sidney Hook, and Edmund Wilson discuss problems of the mind. Today throws its baleful light upon yesterday: hating Stalinism, they are compelled to con-fess that Stalin is the heir of Lenin, even if it be of the worst in Lenin; that Lenin claimed, at any rate, to be inspired by Marx; and that Marx got his intellectual armor from Hegel. So the invasion of Finland, the Soviet-Nazi pact, the Moscow trials, the liquidation of the Kulaks, the hounding of Trotsky—all these lead back to a reconsideration of German metaphysics.

For this task, Sidney Hook is the best qualified, and his “Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy” is a masterpiece of lucid thinking. Once a Marxist, he had tried to save Marx by representing him as a forerunner of Dewey rather than as a disciple of Hegel. Now even this rearguard defensive has been given up. His central chapter, “What Is Living and Dead in Marxism,” might be summed up: “What is living is non-Marxian socialism; what is dead is Marxism itself,” For those who consider reasoning as the most absorbing of games, his analysis of dialectic and its seven meanings will be pure delight. The same incisive logic, free from mysticism and from pedantry, is applied with the same deadly effect to the apologetics of Maritain, to the flight into indeterminacy of certain modern scientists, and to the claims, official in Russia and endorsed by Haldane, of a “class science,” The book has striking unity of spirit; it suffers inevitably from its miscellaneous origins. It is composed of essays and reviews which, although rewritten as chapters, do not quite make a well integrated whole.

Max Eastman performs the same service in “Marxism: Is It Science?” but he frankly addresses himself to the general public, not to the professional student. He writes with cheerful vigor; and, in its wilfully repetitive way (an excellent pedagogical method), the work is thoroughly convincing. It might be objected that none but orthodox Communists believe in the scientific character of Marxism, and that they will not read Eastman: it is easier for them to brand him as a “gangster of the pen.” But the question in Eastman’s title, and his irrefutable answer, are important for all of us. For we—and I do not exclude Hook, Wilson, and Eastman himself—are still unconsciously awed by the Marxian bluff. We still admit, confusedly, that socialism before Marx was “utopian,” and that Marx alone introduced “science” into it.

Edmund Wilson’s “To the Finland Station” sketches the history of socialism from Gracchus Babeuf to the dramatic moment when Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in Moscow in 1917 and assumed command of the Russian Revolution. It is a remarkable book: generous in spirit, richly informed, admirably written. Above all, it is human. The theoretical part is reduced to a minimum; what we are offered is a series of psychological portraits in realistic settings. This entails no capitulation to the craving of the general public for gossip rather than ideas: the book makes sound historical sense. After all, Marxism is not “dialectical materialism,” “surplus value,” “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” These were but Marx’s idiom, to be compared with William Blake’s “emanations” and “Zoas.” The reality is Marx himself—a prophet of Israel, with his burning autocratic temper, his abcesses and his carbuncles, his devotion to an unselfish ideal, his squalid battle against grocer and landlord. The pictures of Michelet (so unjustly neglected in our country), of Engels (singularly human and lovable), and of Lenin are also drawn at full length. Those of the flamboyant Lassalle, the volcanic Bakunin, and Trotsky, “the young eagle,” although less elaborate, are etched with unforgettable power. The other three books under review belong to the political and polemical realm; this one alone is art, something more permanent and more profound than theoretical controversies.

But the contents of Mr. Wilson’s book reveal his unconscious bias. He may be right in defining Renan as a French abbe, Taine as a French professor; but I believe he is wrong in assuming that the bourgeois-democratic humanitarian tradition of 1848 lost itself in the elegant futility of Anatole France. This is not quite fair. Mr. Wilson is unduly influenced by Brousson’s venomous caricature, and he fails to remember that Chevalier’s excellent study is only an analysis of “The Ironic Temper.” France’s disenchantment after his first period of militant socialism is very similar to that of the four books we are reviewing; in “The Gods Are Athirst,” his Stalin happens to be Robespierre. But Anatole France, with commendable modesty, always considered himself as a late recruit in the ranks of social democracy. The full spirit of ‘48 was not in him; he gazed upon it with wistful admiration. He knew that the true heirs of Michelet and Hugo were Zola and Jaures. Without them, the first section of “To the Finland Station” is woefully truncated.

Under “The Origins of Socialism,” Mr. Wilson gives us thumb-nail sketches of the early, the Utopian socialists. I wonder why he did not begin with the master himself: for “Property is theft”—socialism summed up in an Irish bull-goes back to Rousseau’s second “Discourse.” Perhaps he does not do full justice to Saint-Simon. But especially he fails to study or even to mention those socialists of the ‘48 period who could not be called “utopian.” Louis Blanc was a statesman; had he been given power, the National Workshops would not have ended in a sinister farce and a savage insurrection. Proudhon was a great writer—more consistently so than Marx—and, as a social philosopher, less antiquated than his opponent.

With these four books, it would be tempting to reconstitute a history of Marxism from which the four writers would probably recoil; for a vanished faith leaves a long shadow of superstitious fear. By 1848, Marx was a revolutionary socialist of the ‘48 pattern, preaching like Lamennais and Michelet the union of the common people everywhere against their oppressors. By 1849, the millennial hopes had disappeared. An age of cynical materialistic “realism” set in, Marx, who had always been, who always remained, an idealist in every sense of the term, unconsciously adopted the coloring of the period. It was a Second Empire-Positivistic-Manchesterian-Bismarckian coloring: the livery of the age, not the discovery of a pioneering genius. He saved his idealism through his Hegelian dialectic. Whether you stand Hegel upside down, as Marx claimed to have done, or right side up, he remains the same Hegel, the preacher of “the Absolute Idea realizing itself”; in other words, a theologian. Marx saved his dream also through the defense mechanism of “inevitability.” In the bitterness of defeat, there is no better refuge than the wishful thought of “inevitable” triumph. He did not create the first International, but wrecked it. His “Capital” attracted little attention. He died a defeated man.

What triumphed long after his death was not Marxism, but the German Social Democratic party. Socialism in Germany united in nominal allegiance to Marxism, because its Hegelian formulas and its erudition were impressive: Germany reveres the Herr Professor as England loves a lord. Social Democracy offered the only radical opposition to the feudal military Empire; so it grew to formidable and delusive proportions. The German capacity for organization under autocratic rule, which we admire today in Nazi-ism, existed in the party. So it managed to achieve control of the Second International, and to compel even the French socialists to do lip service to Marx. But well do I remember how dry and indigent the orthodox Marxist Jules Guesde seemed to the youth of my time, compared with Jean Jaures, philosopher, historian, and practical leader, in whom the traditions of the Enlightenment, of humanitarian democracy, and of critical science were fused.

Miss Utley and Messrs. Hook, Eastman, and Wilson agree that Marxism had nothing to do with the Russian Revolution. According to Marxist doctrine, Russia was the last country where Communism should have triumphed. What the Russian masses wanted imperiously was not a philosophy but peace and the land. These Lenin gave them. He seized power and kept power by methods which were not out of Marx, but out of Bakunin. His Bolshevists were the Jesuits of popular romance—a secret, ruthless order under a discipline of steel. The “inevitable processes” of dialectical materialism need no such instrument.

Whether in their disenchantment these four writers are fair to Soviet Russia is a different problem, so vast that it would burst the frame of this brief review. If these four have retained a shred of their Hegelism, they must realize that they have reached the antithesis of their original Marxian creed. The time is ripe for a synthesis still unnamed. This in turn will of course negate itself into its antithesis, and so ad infinitum. . . .


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