Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page


James Burnham

A Little Wool Pulling

(August 1938)


From New International, Vol.4 No.8, pp.246-247.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


FOR A MAN SO BORED with my article that he says so twice over, Max Eastman displays an unconscionable degree of heat in replying to it.

And for one who has had so much to say about the viciousness of amalgams, he does some pretty fancy amalgam-making out of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, myself – and George Soule. I am rather accustomed to the Hitler-Mussolini amalgam, since the era of the Trials began; the inclusion of Stalin is no surprise, what with the Nation, the New Republic, and the Evening Post; but I’ll admit that George Soule brings in a new angle.

And for so constant a critic of the shocking tone of Trotskyists, the repetitions of “ashamed”, “disgraceful”, “afraid”, “does not dare”, ring with a peculiarly lurid note.

And for an opponent whose main thesis it is that I have “dodged his views”, it is unexpected to discover that the main portion of his rebuttal is occupied with personal apologetics and analysis of my character and motives.

The personal apologetics deserve an additional few sentences. I did not suggest that Eastman’s article might be mere eyewash and pot-boiler. I mentioned this assumption to reject it, and to make clear that I was taking his article seriously, as a responsible statement of his views. But even if I had made this suggestion, I would obviously have meant the term “pot-boiler” to refer to an ideological not to an economic pot-boiler; just as Trotsky obviously meant ideological not economic profession when he spoke of Eastman fashioning a profession for himself out of the struggle against dialectics. When we say that Lovestone has made a profession out of Trotsky-baiting, nobody understands this to mean making it a financial racket: everyone grants that Lovestone could do much better for his financial self in other and quite different fields. Since all this is quite usual and obvious, Eastman’s comments on the subject, whatever his intention, perform the function of vulgar demagogy, a form of the “Look-at-my-wounds;-and-vote-for-me” argument which was traditional with candidates for the Roman consulship. In Coriolanus’ bittery irony:

Your voices: for your voices I have fought;
Watch’d for your voices; for your voices bear
Of wounds two dozen odd; battles thrice six
I have seen and heard of; for your voices have
Done many things, some less, some more; your voices:
Indeed, I would be consul.

I judge a man’s views by the weight of the argument and evidence; and these are not altered by the financial arrangements. Eastman says that I am guilty of “disingenuous pretense” when I wrote that he reached conclusions “so vague and general as to be hardly arguable”. Consider a couple of the ostensible conclusions, to which I was referring: “4. Those [components of the socialist ideal] obviously fantastic in the light of modern biological and psychological knowledge, to say nothing of modern common sense, should be thrown out. 5. None of those remaining should be conceived as absolute.” Can any man deny that these are “vague and general”? And who would be so foolish as to argue them, I cannot imagine.

What then is the argument about?

It is not, of course, about dialectical materialism. This is merely Eastman’s own brand of herring. It is true that I do not believe in orthodox dialectical materialism. This should certainly be no surprise to Eastman: he will find in his files of The New International, for example, a critique by me of one of the key doctrines of dialectical materialism (“the inevitability of socialism”) to which no reply has yet been made and which I have found no reason to alter. On other occasions where it seems relevant and called for I have made and will make my criticisms of dialectical materialism.

But I was precise in defining the incidence of the article, Max Eastman as Scientist. His Harper’s article, I pointed out, was a new departure. Along with “his perennial attack upon the ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ which he attributes to Marx”, along with the “vague and general conclusions”, “Eastman takes up arms against the socialist ideal”. Eastman, in his Harper’s essay, attacked the socialist ideal and revolutionary politics as a method for achieving that ideal. He based his attack, so he said, on scientific method, the conclusions of modern science, and the experiences of the Russian Revolution.

Does he deny that this was done in his essay? Have I misrepresented him? Then why doesn’t he say so, explicitly and directly? Or does he find it more expedient to list eight points in “our revision of the socialist ideal” and in the next breath speak of “we socialists”; to write for a “practical socialist hypothesis” with one hand, and a “scientific compromise between anarchism and socialism” with the other? And then to pass the whole attack off as an exposure of the “theology of dialectical materialism”.

I was then concerned to defend the legitimacy of the socialist ideal and of revolutionary politics as the method for realizing it from his attack by proving on the basis of his article that: Eastman does not understand scientific method; he has failed to prove any incompatibility between the conclusions of science and the socialist ideal or revolutionary politics; he has failed abysmally in his pretended explanation for the degeneration of the Russian Revolution; his argument tends toward conclusions which are politically either meaningless or reactionary. “In general,” writes Eastman, “the pretense of my critics that I am posing as a ‘scientist’ makes me tired. I know what scientific method is, and so do they.” I am afraid I am not so generous. If Eastman is not posing as a “scientist”, with or without quotes, then what in the world is he posing as? And if he is not, what business does he have dealing with such subjects as he selects? But, with reference at least to the problems under question, my article sought to show, in detail, that Eastman does not “know what scientific method is”. The mere statement of claim is hardly proof to the contrary. And in general, with two exceptions to be noted in a moment, Eastman answers none of my specific argumentation.

Eastman finds me involved in the “disgraceful business of redefining a clear term”, an occupation which sends me well on the road toward liquidating the opposition. I do not quite comprehend, I confess, just why redefining a term, even a clear term, should be disgraceful. And if “freedom” is a clear term, a great many thousands of pages have been lamentably wasted in worrying over it. But let us consider what this clear term clearly means: “being in a position to do what comes into your own head, to act whether soon or late on your own impulses, to restrain those impulses when you restrain them because of your own judgment ...” If dialectical materialism is theological baloney, this is certainly cracker barrel soda-pop, the genuine country store article. What conceivable meaning, in terms of discernible empirical consequences and determinate procedures (as the scientist demands), could be given to this cluster of particles and abstractions?

But, trying in all charity to discover a meaning, the only possibility would call for the social system of Robinson Crusoe – though with Friday left out. If this is freedom, it is then not so much wrong as silly; it has neither relevance to nor importance for actual life. Freedom, like all other general ideals, takes on new meaning and content for every significant change in the conditions of life and society (which means, among other things, that it must constantly be “redefined”). And the kind of freedom appropriate to the complex society of now and the future has no relation whatever to the backwoods anarchism of Eastman’s definition.

And as for human nature: this section of his reply serves as a comment not merely on Eastman’s science but on his polemics as well. Eastman objects to my shifting from his “universal attributes of human nature” to “the essential nature of man”. Now ordinarily, to speak of the universal attributes of human nature would be taken to presuppose a doctrine of substance: a substance which had those universal attributes. But let us waive answer, with an exception, here. Eastman now goes on: “Everybody knows that there are universal attributes of human nature. Does not blood flow in all our veins? Is not arsenic poisonous to us all?” Well, the careful scientist, so much concerned over the religion of Marxists who believe in “inevitability”, would hardly call these loose statements of generalizations (the second of which, by the way, a generalization with notorious exceptions) universal attributes. Why is it, in passing, that Eastman, so particular about the words used by “religious” Marxists, permits himself so cavalier a vagueness in his own language.

But the payoff: Where and how did the dispute about “human nature” come in? Eastman offered “the universal attributes of human nature” as the explanation for the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, as well as the reason why the socialist ideal must be revised. Did he perhaps rely on this having been forgotten by the reader? or did he himself forget it? Or is he seriously meaning to tell us that such “universal attributes” as the blood in our veins and the poisonous properties of arsenic (whether these or any similar in kind) explain – the degeneration of the Revolution.

Though, naturally, relatively stable biological and physiological characteristics of human beings constitute a limiting condition for the possibilities in social change, “human nature” could be relevant as a causal factor in explaining historical events only in its social and historical aspects. And it is precisely these which Marx outstandingly and virtually all of contemporary social scientists of any school show can be treated intelligibly only as functional, as changing, only by rejecting the truly theological and idealist conception of “universal attributes”. Eastman’s preposterous dragging in of blood and arsenic is only another yard of the wool he is pulling.

I hardly feel it necessary to comment on Eastman’s remarks about “blueprints” and the “anti-blueprint temperament”, since I devoted more than a thousand words of my article to a careful explanation of the role of “blueprints” in social action, to what extent and how, they are appropriate, to Eastman’s disastrous confusion on this point between scientific hypotheses and directive ideals (a confusion, by the way, which is a distinguishing and peculiar mark of all idealist philosophies), and to establishing a context where what I meant by “anti-blueprint temperament” would be clear.

The pressure for Eastman’s amalgam is compounded out of his gross and unwarranted distortion of my remarks about “anti-blueprint temperament”, squeezed further by the “redefinition of freedom”. Since the amalgam is spun out of Eastman’s head, and bears no relation to my views or those of Fourth Internationalists generally, there is no particular reason to write on it at length. An observation or two might, however, be in order:

Eastman, in his zeal to exhibit a rational deduction of fascism from the ideas and policies of revolutionary Marxism, in his haste toward the full-flowered position against dictatorships, whether of the left or the right (“the scientific compromise between anarchism and socialism”?), which Eastman apparently kids himself into thinking a brand new discovery of his own, implicitly and in part explicitly rejects the class analysis of fascism. Fascism, we now learn, sails down from the non-material skies as a seductive medley of the anti-blueprint temperament plus decisive political action plus a redefinition of freedom. Ah, if it were only as easy as that! Then, indeed, could the pure men of good will, following the shining ideals that came into their own head, acting under the dictate of their own impulses, soon put the dragon to rout. But, alas, in a world of struggling classes, good will must be linked to strong arms and disciplined organizations, ideals carried out through, I am afraid, that very decisive political action from which Eastman so prophetically shies. Chastity was felt by the Schoolmen to be the purest of virtues; but no virgin ever had a child.

Eastman, in conclusion, accepts his responsibility to produce another program; though he declines to declare himself on the policies of the Fourth International, which are well known to him, which are not obscure, which apply to the burning and immediate questions of our time, which daily guide the actions of revolutionists. Let us hope that his program will be in our hands before the war, or at the very least before fascism. To him, “it seems just now in America a period for deliberation”. To an intelligent man it is always a tune for deliberation, but deliberation is not necessarily divorced from action, even temporally. If an individual seriously doubts and sincerely wishes to retire for deliberation apart from action, we may regret this but we can hardly condemn him. But it is then his duty to keep his deliberations to himself until they have at least reached a point where they issue in an alternative program of action. This course Eastman does not follow. For in truth he is not deliberating: he is publicly advocating a program of deliberation ; that is, a program of passivity, of inaction, of submission. I am for my own part always ready to examine any program, and to accept it if I find it better than the one I hold. But, after examining the premises from which he is starting, I confess to a certain scepticism not merely with reference to Eastman’s present program but even toward that future program which he promises.

James BURNHAM


Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 13.3.2005