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Views of Soviet Russia

ISSUE:  Summer 1930

Soviet Rtissia: A Living Record and a History. By William Henry Chamberlin. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $5.00. Russia: Today and Yesterday. By Dr. E. J. Dillon. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran, and Company. $3.50. Humanity Uprooted. By Maurice Hindus. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $3.00. Tivo Frontiers. By John Gould Fletcher. New York: Coward-McCann. $3.00.

Because it ushered in the most thoroughgoing social transformation in recorded history, Soviet Russia is bound to arouse in any observer his deepest personal and social prejudices. One may, after due allowance for the “personal equation,” study atoms without passion or bias, but such cerebral detachment is impossible in approaching contemporary history, especially the history of an upheaval affecting eveiy aspect of human life and repudiating the concepts and values which hitherto have been dominant in western civilization.

It is natural, therefore, that the authors of the four books under review should approach Soviet Russia with different aims and should judge it by different standards. Mr. William H. Chamberlin, for example, whose “Soviet Russia” is by far the most ambitious and comprehensive of the four, is a newspaperman, born and bred in the United States, who has lived in Soviet Russia for the past seven years as correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He has travelled extensively, throughout the country, studied its press and talked with its people, and, with the aid of his Russian wife, gathered material for his book. This book, he explains, is an attempt to combine an impartial analysis of what has happened in Russia with an attitude of open-minded curiosity as to what may lie in the future. For the background of present-day Russia, he has had to go back to books, for he did not personally, know the Russia of the Czars; but he is able, from personal observation, to report his direct impressions of the Communist Party, various leaders of the Revolution, the nature of the proletarian State, the economic life of the country, the role of the working class, the position of the peasants, the welter of non-Russian nationalities, the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, the Communist International, the revolution in education and culture, the new Russian youth, the decay of the old Russian intelligentsia, Soviet Russia’s relations with world capital, the new Russian woman, and civil liberties under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In his attempt to be impartial, Mr. Chamberlin collects a vast number of surface facts, about many of which, some of them fundamental, he hesitates to venture conclusions. Underneath his impersonal style, loaded with subjunctives and modifications, and through much of the undigested information he conveys, it is not difficult to detect a certain unfriendliness to the Revolution. Nevertheless, in summarizing the achievements of the Communists, the author does set down the following definite conclusions:

Large-scale landlordism in agriculture has been annihilated. The big estates of the former landed nobility have passed forever into the possession of the peasantry. That, at any rate, is an accomplished fact which can never be undone, though the author’s bias makes him uncertain whether the peasant will develop this land along individualistic or collectivist lines.

The second basic achievement of the Revolution, Mr. Chamberlin concludes, is the substitution of state for private control and operation in industry and transport, banking and trade. Here again, the author’s preconceptions raise doubts in his mind as to whether the socialist economic system can produce goods as cheaply and efficiently as they, were produced under capitalism; but he is, at any rate, certain that the socialist system of economy is “firmly rooted and established and taken for granted” in the future plans for the development of national economic life. He cannot imagine its replacement by private capitalism in Russia.

The third permanent achievement is the cultural autonomy of the non-Russian nationalities. Mr. Chamberlin finds that the Communists “deserve credit for not only recognizing theoretically that the Soviet Union, with a population almost fifty per cent non-Russian in origin, is a federation of nationalities, but for practically carrying out the policy of giving every people the freest use of its native language.”

The fourth achievement which he records is the emergence of a new spirit of “plebian democracy,” based on the destruction of former privileged classes and the operation of a social system under which workers, and to a smaller extent peasants, are given preference in political and educational opportunity.

These are Mr. Chamberlin’s four certainties, and coming from so skeptical and “impartial” a source, they constitute an interesting summary of some of the basic achievements of the Revolution. With less penetration, but with a great array of instructive facts and episodes, the author touches on various aspects of Soviet life, always interpreting the march of socialism from the standpoint of an intellectual with middle-class preconceptions, whose knowledge of Russia is ex- ! tensive but whose views are colored by a perceptible bias.

In Dr. E. J. Dillon’s “Russia: Today and Yesterday” we have the unique record of a man whose personal knowledge of Czarist Russia was extraordinary. This English scholar was for many years professor of comparative philology in Kharkov, editor of a newspaper in Kiev, and closely connected with many of the leading personalities of pre-revolu-tionary, Russia, from Dostoyevsky to Count Witte. Apart from the class prejudices which such an experience engendered in him, Dr. Dillon had personal reasons for hostility to the Soviet regime. The Bolsheviks “seized and confiscated” his property, and indirectly deprived him of “one near and dear whose loss all the money in the world cannot make good.” Tnis hostility the author expressed in a bitter anti-Soviet book published some years ago. In 1928, however, he decided to make a sentimental journey to Russia after an absence of fourteen years. Despite his experiences, his old associations, and his previous hostility, Dr. Dillon, after observing the new life, had a complete change of heart. His book has not the wide scope of Mr. Chamberlin’s; to a large extent it is confined to personal impressions; but, comparing the new life which he observed with the old he knew so well, Dr. Dillon comes to the conclusion that the old Russia never really existed, while the new Russia is revolutionizing the world. Constantly comparing and contrasting old and new wherever he went, in town and village, in bookshops, theatres, and museums, in the status of woman, the peasant, the courts, the author finally reached this conclusion:

“The Bolshevists, then, have accomplished much of what they aimed at, and more than seemed attainable by any human organization under the adverse conditions with which they, had to cope. They have mobilized well over one hundred and fifty millions of listless dead-and-alive human beings, and infused into them a new spirit. They have wrecked and buried the entire Old World order in one sixth of the globe, and are digging graves for it everywhere else. They have shown themselves able and resolved to meet any emergency and to fructify opportunity. Their way of dealing with home rule and the nationalities is a masterpiece of ingenuity and elegance. None of the able statesmen of today in other lands have attempted to vie with them in their method of satisfying the claims of minorities. In all these and many other enterprises they are moved by a force which is irresistible, almost thaumaturgical, Bolshevism is no ordinary, historic event. It is one of the vast world cathartic agencies, to which we sometimes give the name Fate, which appear at long intervals to consume the human tares and clear the ground for a new order of men and things. . . . To me it seems to be the mightiest driving force for good or for evil in the world today. It is certainly a stern reality, smelling perhaps of sulphur and brimstone, but with a mission on earth, and a mission that will undoubtedly be fulfilled.”

Like Dr. Dillon, the author of “Humanity Uprooted” has had the advantage of living in Russia prior to the Revolution, and of being able at every point that interests him to compare the new life with the old. Mr. Maurice Hindus is himself a Russian, born and brought up under the old regime, so that the country and its people are not alien to him; he has, however, lived long enough in the United States to have acquired another culture which gives him a certain amount of detachment.

Mr. Hindus approaches Soviet Russia in the spirit of a journalist with a strong artistic streak who wishes to know the world through sensuous contact. In the spirit of the sensuous artist, to whom life is comprehensible only in the concrete, he records his own adventures in Soviet Russia. These have a wide range, for the author has visited the country many times and has travelled extensively. A thorough knowledge of the language enables him to talk with people everywhere and to check up his reading of newspapers, books, and reports by direct observation.

The artist in him centers Mr. Hindus’ attention on the “human interest” side of the Revolution. He has three illuminating chapters on sex, love, and the family (subjects barely touched on by, Mr. Chamberlin and Dr. Dillon), and three chapters on religion. He is chiefly interested in people, and records conversations with peasants, workers, Communists, young men and women, intellectuals, Cossacks, Jews.

From his adventures, described in a vivid, often lyrical prose, Mr. Hindus concludes that religion is dying in Soviet Russia, and that a new faith is taking its place, the core of which is social service; that Soviet Russia is working out new sex and family relationships that spell the death of old-fashioned romance, but raise woman to a plane of equality with man; that if socialism succeeds in Russia, the col-lectivist idea in one form or another will sweep the world and private property as a source of income will vanish; but if the Russians fail, then private property, however modified in form, will continue to function and perhaps to flourish even in Russia.

Mr. Hindus’ generalizations have not the same force and conviction as his concrete pictures. His descriptions of people and scenes are vivid and real; he succeeds in conveying the atmosphere of a tremendous movement which destroys all that is evil and useless and creates new vigorous values. When he abandons the concrete, the author is out of his depth. His analyses of intellectual currents and philosophies are confused. As a literary cameraman, however, he has contributed one of the most illuminating books in the increasing material on Russia.

The three books considered so far are attempts to describe and interpret Soviet Russia by men who have personally observed it; they, seek, chiefly, to present facts and paint pictures; such conclusions as they make are of immediate sociological value. Mr. John Gould Fletcher’s “Two Frontiers,” on the other hand, is a philosophic work, strongly influenced by Spengler, which seeks to analyze contemporary world culture by comparisons and contrasts between what the author considers to be the two most powerful cultural factors of our times, the United States and Soviet Russia. These countries are the “two frontiers,” with Europe merely a land-bridge between.

Mr. Fletcher sees a striking parallelism, as well as contrast, in the developments of Russia and America, and to make his point he traces the histories and literatures of the two countries from the beginning.

Whatever one may think of Mr. Fletcher’s ideas, his facts and interpretations of Russia ought to be checked up by the works of such direct observers as Messrs. Chamberlin, Dillon, and Hindus; for while the imagist poet moves freely and gracefully among vast mystical generalities, these have little basis in the actualities of Russian life, and only little more in the actualities of American life. To compare two diverse figures like Henry James and Turgenev merely because they, were both expatriates (though for entirely different reasons) is to show an extraordinary lack of insight into the importance of specific national and class cultures. Similar comparisons of Gogol and Hawthorne, Tolstoy and Whitman, Melville and Dostoyevsky, Stephen Crane and Chekov, Mark Twain and Lyeskov, while rich in psychological suggestions, are sterile as a study of two civilizations.

In his approach to contemporary America and revolutionary Russia, the author fails to grasp the real problems presented by these two civilizations. It is simply not true (as anyone can find out for himself by reading Messrs. Chamberlin, Dillon, and Hindus, or any other observer of the Russian scene) that Lenin plays the same role as the mystical Jesus of the pre-revolutionary peasant; nor is it true that the “underlying aim of the Russians became to create an army of young Lenins; that of the Americans to achieve a million Henry Fords.” The steady concentration of wealth in America, the increasing number of mergers from year to year, the monopoly of large-scale industry and banking by a small group, inevitably diminishes the possible number of Henry Fords; while the aim of the Communists everywhere, Russia included, is to create a classless society in which the revolutionist disappears together with the tyrant. One may entertain any opinion one likes about these aims; but no valid opinion is possible unless one sees these aims accurately. And because the author prefers cosmic mystical dreams to facts, he urges upon Russia the need of an Emerson “to lead it towards individual self-reliance,” and upon America a Dostoyevsky “to show it the value of common submission to the mysterious powers that govern the development of all spirituality.”

Although it may be less picturesque than this pious literary hope for the perpetuation of an intellectual world to which one is accustomed, it is nevertheless more likely that the rapid mechanization of the world on a corporate basis, with all the social and psychological changes it implies, will make both Emerson and Dostoyevsky impossible in Russia and America alike, or, for that matter, anywhere else.


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