Saturday, May 07, 2005

Lessons from the Red Decade

I have often argued that most on the conservative right are in denial about Islam. Ecumenical conservatives, in particular, believe religion is inherently good. This great religion, they say, has been hijacked by a few that do not represent Islam. Apparently, someone forgot to tell that to the Muslims: “Osama bin Laden … is viewed favorably by large percentages in Pakistan (65%), Jordan (55%) and Morocco (45%),” notes this survey done by the Pew Research Center. This is no surprise to anyone truely familiar with Islam. Dr. Mohamed Ibn Guadi, a researcher in Semitic Philology at Strasbourg University, explains that what bin Laden espouses is legitimate Islam. Apparently, it’s only Americans who believe his Islam isn’t legitimate.

The conservative denial of Islam’s threat reminds me of the left’s denial of the threat of communism during the Red Decade. Both the New Republic and the Nation in the 1930s believed that the Soviet Union was a noble experiment. Frank A. Warren, III, in his classic study, “Liberals and Communism: The ‘Red Decade’ Revisited,” covers the evolution of the left’s assessment of the USSR during the Great Depression.

During the 1920s there was considerable enthusiasm for the communist “experiment.” Even the most august of American philosophers, John Dewey, upon returning from a visit to the USSR, wrote apologetically. Warren notes: “Equally significant was Dewey’s conception of Russian society as an economic and cultural experiment – ‘the most interesting one going on upon our globe.’” John Dewey was quoted from his book, Impressions of Soviet Russia (L&C p.63 all page numbers are from the 1966 edition). “A new type of human nature was being created, Dewey said, cooperative instead of individualistic and selfish. A ‘collective mentality’ was replacing ‘the individualistic psychology.’” (p.64) Dewey and a few other moderate liberals came to their senses by the mid-1930s – however, they were the exceptions.

Oswald Garrison Villard … when he visited Russia in 1929, he had pronounced it ‘the greatest human experiment ever undertaken,” and like Dewey wished it well. … Although he disliked the dictatorial practices of the Russian rulers, he believed that, in contrast to Mussolini, they were selflessly working for the good of the masses.” (pp.68-69) Roger Baldwin “justified Russia’s repressions in terms of her revolutionary aims. Whereas violations of liberty would have been intolerable in the Western Democracies, they were ‘weapons of struggle’ in the transition to socialism in the Soviet Union.” (p. 64) In 1931, “Stuart Chase asserted that the Five-Year Plan had made the Russian world ‘exciting, stimulating, challenging,’ while for Americans the world was “dull and uninspired, wracked with frightful economic insecurity.” (p.66)

“When Sherwood Eddy called the Five-Year Plan the ‘boldest experiment in history,’ and when Bruce Bliven [of The New Republic] extolled Russian industrialization as ‘one of the most desperate ventures’ of all times, they were recording the dazzled feeling shared by the admirers of Russian planning.” … “Bliven and Soule … were ecstatic over collectivization … blamed the Ukrainian famine of 1933 on counterrevolutionaries. … for Anna Louise Strong, Stalin was always right – whether he was moving swiftly against the kulaks or ordering a slow-down. In her writings, collectivization became a great Soviet morality play of good triumphing over evil. [Maurice] Hindus had been so overwhelmed by the amazing feat of collectivization that, while he innately sympathized with the suffering of its victims, he was convinced of the long-run good of what was happening. … [P72] Force had been used, he admitted, and famine had occurred. But peaceful and voluntary methods would have delayed development for more than a decade. … Louis Fisher, with his cold, hard acceptance of power, ‘historical necessity,’ and the fait accompli, and Walter Duranty, who justified every maneuver by the ‘time-table of the revolution.’” (pp.70-72)

Had enough? No?

“George S. Counts described the ‘new man’ as ‘sturdy, confident, class-conscious, socially-sensitive and practical-minded.’ … the Five-year Plan had displaced man’s ‘I’ as ‘the center of things.’ The concept of the ‘new man’ was closely related to the belief that Russia had created new motives for individuals. In 1934 Sherwood Eddy reported the replacement of the old selfish profit motive by cooperative, creative, and humanitarian motives and incentives.” (p.73)

“The editors of The New Republic said that Soviet diplomacy, because it was ‘direct and [p75] honest,’ was ‘the best in the world.’ … The New Republic’s [view was that the] basic belief that a workers’ state was nonimperialist and nonaggressive because it had eliminated the principal cause of war under capitalism – the profit motive. Russia, the editors said, was ‘no longer an imperialist power,’ but the ‘world’s first communist state.’” (p.74) “The editors of The New Republic wrote: ‘Stalin is not and never has been a dictator in Russia, in the same sense in which a Mussolini … is a dictator.’” “Instead, there was a dictatorship of the Communist Party; Stalin, according to Davis and Bruce Bliven, could be deposed any time the Party was dissatisfied.” (p.77)

“Finally, the rough edges of the dictatorship were excused by a concentration on the future. Louis Fischer reported that the goal was to establish the first socialist democracy, and even Sherwood Eddy, who shabby criticized the dictatorship, could still speak of its democratic aims.” “Roger Baldwin claimed more liberties for the Russian people under the dictatorship than anywhere else in the world: the ‘fundamentals of liberty’ were established on economic grounds-‘the only ground on which liberty really matters.’" “… Walter Duranty stated that the Russian masses were not ready for independent self-government and that the dictatorship was acting as a ‘tutor and guardian’ while they prepared themselves for it.” (p.78)

“The editors of The New Republic were willing to temporize earlier. Bliven and Soule did not like the absence of civil liberties, but they refused to make any outright condemnation of Russian justice.” (p.81) “Stalin had been largely responsible for what they believed were the remarkable Russian achievements, they were predisposed to favor Stalin…” In Feb 1935, “… the editors of The New Republic clearly stated their position: civil liberties were not the only standard, ‘or even the major standard,’ for judging countries. They justified their double standard in regard to Germany and Russia by the ends in view: whereas Germany aimed at a perpetual autocracy, Russia’s goal was a classless society.” (p.189)

“… why so many were willing to overlook, or at least to tolerate, the terror and repression of the Communist regime. There was, of course, simply irrational, blind faith in the aims of the Revolution – much more prevalent in the fellow travelers than in the Russian sympathizers. An analysis of the more rational attitudes of the Russian sympathizers, however, reveals two specific reasons. The first was the tendency to regard Russia as an experiment (a tendency often sneered at by the Communists, who apparently believed her ‘proven’). Like Dewey in 1929, they were misled by their belief in pragmatism and instrumentalism. It was the resulting emphasis on the application of the scientific method to social problems that caused them ultimately to mistake mass control for social experimentation.” … “The very fact that they believed Russia to be an experiment removed them from the need to evaluate it. As an experiment it was not in its final state, but in the process of achieving it. Hence any ‘imperfections’ in the soviet system could not be criticized in the same way as in another system. Final judgment could be suspended until the experiment was over and the system, like any scientifically developed phenomenon, had been perfected.” (p.85-86)

“Harry F. Ward distinguished between the transitional ‘group’ dictatorship under Communism and the perpetual ‘personal’ dictatorship of the ruling class under Fascism.” “The New Republic editorialized simply: ‘Fascism constitutes an international danger, and Communism does not.’ The Nation summed the whole matter up: Fascism and Communism were as different as ‘night and day.’” (pp.112-113)

Then came Stalin’s Terror, the Purge, and the trumped up trials used to convict and kill his real and imagined enemies. “The veteran crusader for social justice, Upton Sinclair endorsed the trials and his opinions were duly printed.” (p.166) “In September 1938 [Maxwell S.] Stewart wrote in The Nation that the ‘average worker’ had been pleased by the purges for they had come ‘exclusively from below.’” (p.167) By this time John Dewey was the lead critic of Stalin’s repression. Had The New Republic and The Nation “been genuinely interested in discovering all possible evidence, they would have supported the Dewey-led investigation. Instead, despite their claim of “agnosticism,’ they actually sided with the Soviet government in their tendency to assume that the defendants were guilty of ‘something’ and therefore punishable. But to accuse Bliven and Soule and Freda Kirchwey of merely whitewashing the trials is to underestimate their differences with the Communists and fellow travelers.” “The Communists and fellow travelers ‘applauded’ the trials; The New Republic and The Nation ‘regretted’ them.” (p.178)

“On August 24, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was announced.” “The Communist line immediately changes from a support of collective security to a call for strict isolationism in America. The slogan of dictatorship versus democracy was replaced by a denunciation of the imperialist war. The pro-New Deal policy was discarded for opposition – the New Deal was the ‘War Party’ and the captive of the reactionaries.” (p.193)

Finally, left-liberals started to face the fact that Stalin wasn’t a very nice guy. However, it wasn’t communism that was the problem – just Stalin. In today’s terms, they would say he hijacked communism. “In answer to the Stalin-haters, they [TNR] asserted that, though Stalin was indeed a tyrant, Russia had made great economic and cultural advances. It was ‘absurd to identify 170,000,000 people with one man.’ Stalin would not live forever. Americans were urged to focus on American problems and not to think primarily of what was happening in Russia.” (p.208)

The author, Frank A. Warren, III, is a left-liberal and professor at Queens College in New York City. He is writing his book in response to Eugene Lyons’ The Red Decade. Apparently, he thinks Lyons has gone too far in his description of the left-liberal’s infatuation with communism. At the end of the book he gives the following summation: “The New Republic and The Nation did not ‘applaud,’ ‘bless,’ or even ‘approve’ the murders and liquidation in the same way as Soviet Russia Today. They rationalized them, apologized for them, and showed an amazing default of the moral imagination.” P225 “Liberals who were vaguely sympathetic toward socialism were influenced by Russia because they believed she was a socialist state. But for such liberals the precise theory of Communism mattered less than Russia’s ‘planned’ economy – planned, of course, for the people and not for the capitalists.”

Communism has led to the deaths of over 100 million. Yet even today, the left cannot face its guilt in supporting the most murderous regimes in human history. Now, what road was paved with good intensions?

This is why I believe we must understand Islam better than the current conservative and left-wing intellectuals. Our actions and inactions, no matter how well intentioned, may very well lead to the opposite of what we cherish. The blindness of the intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s helped communism expand over half of Europe and Asia. Today, we are actively helping several Islamic countries – we sold F16s to Pakistan recently. We believe democracy will solve everything but democracy is only the hiring process of the chief civil servants. What they do with that power depends on their philosophy of a just society. Don’t assume it is the same as ours.


Blogger Warren said...

I've had these conversations with so-called intelectuals.

Apoligist every one!
"The USSR, (et al), wasn't/isn't a real Communist state"
"Stalin wasn't a real Communist"

Now I have these conversations that end like this:
"They aren't real muslims"

5/7/05, 9:15 PM  
Blogger Jason Pappas said...


5/7/05, 11:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The complete text of John Dewey's Impressions of Soviet Russia can be read at

I think the blogger makes a mistake comparing old-fashioned conservatives with the "fellow travelers" of the 1930s. Rather compare the new -- or neo --conservatives with the Bolsheviks.

The major threat to America is internal.

1/22/07, 12:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a link:

Impressions of Soviet Russia

1/22/07, 12:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll give it one more try:

Impressions of Soviet Russia

1/22/07, 12:50 AM  
Blogger Jason Pappas said...

Thanks for the link to Dewey. On page 113 his "pragmatism" lead him to conclude:

"There are, of course, two points of view from which it is not a genuine experiment, since its issue is foredoomed. The fanatic of individual capitalistic business for private gain and the Marxian dogmatic fanatic both have the answer ready in advance. According to the first, the attempt is destined to failure; it is fated to produce, in the words of Mr. Hoover, an “economic vacuum”; according to the latter, the transformation from individualism to collectivism of action is the absolute and inevitable result of the working of laws that are as positively known to social “science” as, say, the law of gravitation to physical science. Not being an absolutist of either type, I find it more instructive to regard it as an experiment whose outcome is quite undetermined, but that is, just as an experiment, by all means the most interesting one going on upon our globe—though I am quite frank to say that for selfish reasons I prefer seeing it tried in Russia rather than in my own country.

Both beliefs in their dogmatic form have served a purpose. The first—the “individualistic” philosophy—has enabled men to put up with the evils of the present order of things. If this is as fixed as human nature, and if human nature is built upon the pattern of the present economic order, there is nothing to do but bear up as best we can. The Marxian philosophy gave men faith and courage to challenge this régime. But ignoring both of these dogmatic faiths, I should say that what there is in Russia is an experiment having two purposes. The first and more immediate aim is to see whether human beings can have such guarantees of security against want, illness, old-age, and for health, recreation, reasonable degree of material ease and comfort that they will not have to struggle for purely personal acquisition and accumulation, without, in short, being forced to undergo the strain of competitive struggle for personal profit. In its ulterior reaches, it is an experiment to discover whether the familiar democratic ideals—familiar in words, at least—of liberty, equality and brotherhood will not be most completely realized in a social régime based on voluntary coöperation, on conjoint workers’ control and management of industry, with an accompanying abolition of private property as a fixed institution—a somewhat different matter, of course, than the abolition of private possessions as such. The first aim is the distinctly economic one. But the farther idea is that when economic security for all is secured, and when workers control industry and politics, there will be the opportunity for all to participate freely and fully in a cultivated life. That a nation that strives for a private culture from which many are excluded by economic stress cannot be a cultivated nation was an idea frequently heard from the mouths of both educators and working people."

Dewey would have us believe that Stalin’s USSR was an experiment in human social engineering unconstrained by the fixed laws of human nature. Dewey was quite an "anti-ideological" ideology radical. Earlier in the text he mentions that many intellectuals’ initial impression of the Soviet regime was negative. He tries to counter that impression by saying they’ve moved on from Marxist dogma to an “experimental” stage. He dismisses critics as equally dogmatic. It is quite a document of self-deception. Thanks.

1/22/07, 7:03 AM  

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