From New International, Vol.4 No.9, September 1938, pp.281, 286-287.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
New York City
August 5, 1938
In your latest number you have three articles whose continuity is very suggestive, so much so that I am minded to offer you my comment.
Two are Max Eastman’s reply to James Burnham’s criticism, and the latter’s rebuttal of that reply; the third is John Dewey’s criticism of Trotsky’s moral position considered as a philosophic argument.
I think we must accept Dr. Dewey’s criticism insofar as it applies specifically to that part of Mr. Trotsky’s argument which discusses the theoretical moral question of the interdependence of means and ends. It seems to me inescapable that the Marxian inflection of Hegelian idealism occupies an absolutist moral position, rather than one lending itself to the method of scientific experimentalism espoused by Dr. Dewey. Not that Mr. Trotsky does not have, it seems to me, a clear defense. The fact that, as Dr. Dewey points out, Mr. Trotsky deduces his means from Marxism is owing to Mr. Trotsky’s intuitive faith in these means, corroborated by his intellectual investigations. The “logic” of Mr. Trotsky’s position, which Dr. Dewey attacks, is the necessary form of his political and moral activity; for how is it possible for anyone to conceive the “objective consequences” of all possible “means” toward a given end such as “the liberation of mankind”? Even so, any verification of the immediate end would reveal elements tending both toward and away from the ultimate end. Can Dr. Dewey imagine an “objective” verification of means which is wholly and exclusively a “good”, in that in every respect it tends to liberate all people, everywhere? I doubt if such a test of moral program can be invented.
But I have a point more relevant to the special contiguity of the three articles. It must have occurred to more than one reader of Eastman’s reply as well as Dr. Dewey’s article that there is a conceivable tie-up between Dewey’s criticism of Trotsky and Eastman’s reply to Burnham. Let us take this angle in order to determine if Dewey is properly the apologist for such positions as Eastman’s. Does not Eastman contend that Marxism is in fact a metaphysic, a mere fortuitous hybrid of materialism and Hegelianism? Of course, we observe Burnham conclusively proving by rebuttal that Eastman, in respect to his technical weapons, is a philosophic amateur, but it seems likely that he agrees in substance with Dewey and would stand behind him as against Trotsky and Burnham.
We must note the particular application of Dewey’s criticism. In his penultimate paragraph he says: “I have no wish to go outside the theoretical question of the interdependence of means and ends but it is conceivable that the course actually taken by the revolution in the USSR becomes more explicable when it is noted that means were deduced from a supposed scientific law instead of being searched for and adopted on the ground of their relation to the moral end of the liberation of mankind.” Dr. Dewey’s knowledge of theory entitles him to apply it or not apply it as he sees fit, but Eastman, without sound theoretical knowledge, is prompted to condemn out of an arbitrary intuition, a simple desire to express himself. However, his reply to Burnham is extremely valuable as a document, because in the manner in which he betrays his intellectual bankruptcy, his impotence as to any “means” relevant to the issues, he persuades as fully and irrevocably of the reality of his moral position as did recently the young man who sought the hotel’s ledge before committing his own position to the mercies of the sidewalk below.
Did this young man not desire in moral theory precisely what Eastman desires? In effect, this desire is for a place, as the suicide said, “where one may think things out for himself”. While, in the suicide’s case, his desire for a moral refuge, where one may face his own problems frankly, was saturated with psychopathic intensity, in Eastman’s case it is the popular liberalistic paranoia of, as Eastman says, “being in a position to do what comes into your own head, to act whether soon or late on your own impulses”. Note how curiously the exact language suggests the other situation. Both, we feel, are private and not at all theoretical matters.
Of course, there is a social issue involved, for, in some sense, the problem is the problem of Everyman. Each of us may find himself in the same boat but the means of getting out, or even existing while still in, may be vastly differing. Eastman’s special attitude has the confusion of a deliberate mental panic, a “healthy” – that is to say, operative – slowing down and retroaction of the moral activity through fear. In his reply, does Eastman do more than serve a sort of neurotic threat to his opponents? Generalized with the threat of the suicide to relatives, friends and passing pedestrians, it would read thus: “I want a place to consider my own problems without possible fear of interruptions. I’ve confined my problems to thinking about this problem. Oppose me, and you are likely to regret it.”
How truthful Mr. Eastman is when he says he is “bored”! Mr. Burnham must withdraw his scepticism. No doubt the ledge suicide was bored – and to death – with the extensive history of friends’, relatives’ and doctors’ “interference” with his simple democratic desire “to think things out for himself”. Mr. Eastman’s attitude toward “interference” goes to prove, I daresay, the amplitude of the means which may be adopted by the individual sincerely desiring to retain his freedom to act for himself.
Yet unmistakeably, in the defects of his equipment and in his injured, vaingloriously defiant tone, Eastman points to an abstract “ledge”, a ledge over a moral abyss. How remote from the characters and purposes of Dewey, Trotsky and Burnham is the necessity for this little space, this space in which one may remain, it is true, a New Deal democratic liberal – this precious spot of air, sunlight and earth successfully orientated from fascism! I should not like to underrate Mr. Eastman, but I believe the rhetorical means by which he states this very-minimum demand of the advanced intellectual forms a confession from which it is almost impossible to retrieve his dignity.
Allow me to take this opportunity to say how stimulating and valuable I find The New International; it is one of the very few magazines in the world consistently contributing in language and ideas to the sense of life.
Yours very truly,
Last updated on 6.8.2006