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Shapes of Things to Come

ISSUE:  Summer 1936

Soviet Communism; A New Civilisation? By Sidney and Beatrice Webb. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Two volumes. $7.50. $2500 a Year: Prom Scarcity to Abundance. By Mordecai Ezekiel. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. Pascism and National Socialism. By Michael T. Florinsky. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50. Why Democracy? By Jay William Hudson. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company. $2.00.

When a French lecturer asked his Paris students what is the most important thing in a coal mine, and received the obvious answer that it is coal, young Frederic Le Play quietly declared, “No! the coal miner.” Le Play died in 1882. He spent a lifetime in travel, wanting to know how the industrial worker lived, lodged, rested. This tradition of direct social investigation has been carried on for almost five decades by the tireless Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Famous as students of trade unionism, co-operation, industrial democracy, political institutions, they have extended the scope of their research far beyond mere description into the foundations of institutional origins and operation. As Fabians, they are sympathetic with every movement towards a better social order; and though scornfully condemned by the communists as “social fascists,” without partisan passion they have set out, in their old age, to explore in two large volumes the organization and aims of a country where the most important thing in a coal mine is the coal miner.

The resulting work of the Webbs, “Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?” is profound and thorough, carefully systematized, accomplished with infinite patience and dispassionateness ; it is at the same time a work of methodical reflection upon contemporary economics and politics, to which they have brought a lifetime of experience with English institutions combined with a mentality at once curious, critical, and appraising. It is not a definitive work on the Soviet Union, but without a doubt it is the most significant achievement in the field of political institutions in our generation, a work historic in its proportions in the sense that De Tocqueville’s work on American democracy was historic a century ago. With great fullness of detail they describe the multiplicity of the Soviet system, the integrated organization of man’s life as citizen, producer, consumer, and participant in the common social life, concluding with the organization of the Communist Party for guidance and training in the “vocation of leadership.” Repeatedly they declare that the essence and reality of the communist democracy is indwelling in the multiplicity of social institutions taking in the whole of man at work or at play, with all his instinctive loyalties to family, neighborhood, community, and state.

This sense of participation and synthesis of social life involves freedom of discussion and debate, but it also compels loyalty to the final decision or “line” of party policy; and the Webbs deny that the continuance of opposition and criticism is a real test of democracy. It is not a dictatorship, but a “multiform democracy” inspired by a new social creed and by a code of conduct based on service to the community in social equality and the maximum development of individual and social capacity. “It is not in the constitutional structure, nor even in the working of the Soviets and the ubiquitous representative system, that anything like autocracy or dictatorship is to be found, but rather in the activities that the constitution definitely authorises the executive to exercise. . . . If by autocracy or dictatorship is meant government without prior discussion and debate, either by public opinion or in private session, the government of the U. S. S. R. is, in that sense, actually less of an autocracy or a dictatorship than many a parliamentary Cabinet.”

The Webbs are realistic in their criticism of Soviet life; they do not mince words in dispraise of communist fanatical zeal and heresy-hunting; they condemn the extreme measures taken against “class enemies” and the punishment meted out to political dissenters; but they emphasize even more the transitory and accidental nature of the many deviations from open toleration, the evolutionary and adaptive nature of communism, the wide divergencies in the constitutional structure of economic life, the multiplicity of local creative activity in matters of common welfare, the retreat from forceful socialization in favor of owner-producer co-operatives in agriculture and handicraft industry, the co-ordination of scientific research with the work of political and industrial management in order to make the relations of human groups in production correspond with the latent possibilities of technical progress and production. They maintain that in the perspective of history the social transformation of Russia has cost less in human suffering than similar changes in the western world. They are firmly of the opinion that the system has the support of the great masses of Russia, and that while authority and power are centralized, it is a democratic form of centralism dependent primarily upon the needs of the hour, a centralism having no justification in inequality, exploitation, class, or special privilege. There is a general concern for the resources of nature, human labor, and instrumental capital, also a devotion to collective tasks and services that has the character of religious enthusiasm; but what is really new under communism is the planned economy for community consumption for goods of both stable and unstable demand, the planned manipulation of wage rates to bring about the allocation of labor and capital, the widespread education of the masses in industrial self-government, the spirit of sport in industry as a stimulus to keenness of production, the work for cultural autonomy among the racial minorities,—all these manifold efforts inspired by the common desire to build not only things but men, culture, and life. Being English, the Webbs are amazed that the Soviet Union has solved the problem of subject minor nationalities on the principle of citizenship irrespective of race, language, or color, and they ascribe this success in government to Russia’s federal system, and regard it as a potent force for Soviet influence among peoples beyond its frontiers. They conclude that the civilization of the Soviets possesses “a distinct unity, itself in striking contrast with the disunity of western civilization,” that Russia is today the only country which has a universal hope and a universal loyalty to corporate interests overspanning class and race divisions; that the influence of Russia will spread to other regions: “but how, when, where, with what modifications, and whether through violent revolution or by peaceful penetration, or even by conscious imitation, are questions we cannot answer.”

The economy of abundance and the good life are also the prayerful objective of American leaders. “Reform and amendment of our methods require experiment,” declared ex-President Herbert Hoover in “The Challenge to Liberty.” And President Roosevelt has summarized the social objectives of the Administration in these terms: “To try to increase the security and the happiness of a larger number of people . . . to give them more of the good things of life; to give them a greater distribution, not only of wealth in the narrow terms but of wealth in the wider terms . . . to give them assurance that they are not going to starve in their old age; to give honest business a chance to go ahead and make a reasonable profit, and to give everyone a chance to earn a living.” In “$2500 a Year: From Scarcity to Abundance,” Mordecai Ezekiel, an adviser to Secretary of Agriculture Wallace, sets out as his major thesis that we can bring about the more abundant life amid the present hard capitalistic facts, within the framework of our democracy and private property institutions, provided we agree to surrender restrictive and destructive practices and operate the industrial system for production and use, correct its faults, enhance its efficiency, and co-ordinate the related parts of the system in the same way that a single business concern is a coordinated whole. He proposes a “national blueprint” as a means of fitting together the various parts of our system, believing that this can be done by working out a program in advance for each year’s operations within each major industry, so balanced and integrated that waste and conflicts would be eliminated and production expanded to yield an income of a minimum of $2,500 per family as a measure of reasonable attainment at the start. This cannot be brought about by government undertakings or by voluntary co-operation; what Mr. Ezekiel proposes is a plan of Industrial Adjustment, one of deliberate planning, with business, labor, and government as interested parties, consciously seeking the ends of controlled abundance in the interests of full production and full consumption. He does not venture to question the values of our private competitive system, or ask whether business can be infused with this spirit of social service and surrender its exclusive rights to the profits of industry. To save the framework of democracy is no less the aim of Professor Florinsky in “Fascism and National Socialism,” an objective and trenchant study of the totalitarian states of Italy and Germany, which have achieved national unity at the expense of standards of living, sound finance, individual initiative, and human personality. “Despite the grandiloquent declarations of the leaders and their eulogies of the ‘corporate spirit’ and ‘national solidarity,’ in both Italy and Germany the entire machinery for the maintenance of peace between capital and labor rests wholly on the supremacy of Government and Party.” And to the State, which in effect means the personal regime of the leader, both employers and labor are in complete subjection. One leaves this interesting survey of fascism with the impression that the totalitarian state presents three problems of high importance to the future of civilization in democracies, namely, the autonomy of the individual personality, the supremacy of ethical ends over political ends, and the ancient problem of morality as a foundation of justice as against the State claiming to be the intrinsic source of ethics.

Why, then, democracy? Professor Hudson’s answer is in terms of ethics and morality, in terms of our temporal and spiritual life. His aim in “Why Democracy?” is to discover the ethical theories underlying the larger democracy of which political institutions are but a functional aspect. The larger democracy is a growing usage, an ever expanding enlargement of the ethical and moral personality of man, and until men are conscious of their ultimate obligations and rights, little can be done to secure the good life through the political state. The larger democracy must rest on the recognition that all men are potentially rational, social, and capable of progress; that issues affecting human welfare must be decided by reason, not by authority, and that the collective reason is, on the whole, the safer guide than the isolated reason of any individual or class. However, Dr. Hudson, who is professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri, does not come to grips with the most striking feature of our contemporary civilization, namely, the growing contradiction between its social morality and the actual incentives upon which individualism and capitalism rest, a fact primarily responsible for the disintegration of the world’s moral consciousness.

The reviewer leaves his task with admiration for the synthetic genius of the Webbs, with praise for the partial performances of Messrs. Ezekiel, Florinsky, and Hudson “singing without a voice” (to use the words of Steele), and with a sigh for the unsolved problem of economic collectivism in the framework of traditional individualism and democracy. I sigh for a Peirce, a James, a Mead, a Dewey, to pry into our politics and economics. Surely, the synthesis of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is completely battered, the centers of social power are again on the move, and we live without true ideological concepts in this age of profound shift from one cultural epoch to another. No wonder we are distraught, see darkly and in part only, cry for a road back from industrialism, science, and democracy; no wonder we yearn for a new sense of security, even for a new Caesar. The praise of tradition is not enough, nor the heroic ethical decision, nor the technical blueprint with the guaranteed income of $2500 for life. What we must know is whether our democracy is a disguised form of eighteenth-century middle-class ideology, or whether it contains also the moral ideal of the classless functional order of life. If ethical democracy is rooted in the moral worth of every personality, and if the larger democracy must hold the poles of individual personality and social concern, may it then be identified with private, competitive capitalism? Does it provide a living alternative to fascism and communism? To put it otherwise, is the scientific habit of mind sufficiently compatible with the ideal of democracy to produce a new intellectual synthesis, an intelligence acting in the service of all values, individual and collective? The advocates of a larger ethical democracy must remember that the challenge of communism is not essentially of one property form as against another, but a challenge to the very existence of the propertied class itself; that the communist ideology challenges the morality of individualism as an anti-social incentive, therefore as no incentive at all under modern conditions of production; that it sees the collective ideology as a superior incentive for social creativeness, one consistent with the present economy, and therefore offering superior freedom for the masses.


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