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James Burnham & Max Shachtman

Intellectuals in Retreat

WE ARE, IN THIS ARTICLE, writing particularly about the following persons:

Group I: Max Eastman, Sidney Hook, Charles Yale Harrison, James Rorty, Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, Benjamin Stolberg, James Farrell, Louis Hacker, and others.

Group II: John Chamberlain, Louis Adamic, Eugene Lyons, John Dewey, George S. Counts, Ferdinand Lundberg.

It may reasonably be asked in what sense we list these individuals as groups; and how we happen to direct our attention to the two groups in a single article. All of those in Group I have a similar political background. They are all what is known as “radical intellectuals.” Most were once, for varying lengths of time, within the orbit of the Communist Party, several of them Party members. With the exception of Eastman and Stolberg, they continued as Communist Party sympathizers well into its Stalinist period. From five years to a year and a half ago, they broke sharply with Stalinism, and for a period were, in political sympathies and general political orientation, close to the revolutionary movement – that is, to the Fourth Internationalist or “Trotskyist” movement. Indeed, they were and still for the most part are known to a considerable public as “the Trotskyist intellectuals.” Within the past year or more, they have been steering away from the revolutionary movement.

Group II is of a different character, and will occupy us only incidentally. These intellectuals, also, were at one time closely associated with Stalinism. However, in contrast to Group I, they were – to employ a picturesque phrase which has become current in this country – ”Stalinist liberals”. Their support was always in terms of bourgeois, not of working class, politics. They have in recent years drawn away from Stalinism, though of them only Lyons and Dewey have broken sharply. For Group II, however, this change does not mean a decisive shift: their basic bourgeois liberal politics dominated their Stalinist associations, and now continues little altered without the Stalinist trimmings. Group II is herein included because its members with those of Group I are known as “radical anti-Stalinist intellectuals”; and more especially because, from a different origin, some of Group I have coalesced politically with Group II, and others of Group I are now heading plainly toward that same outcome.

As we shall show, the ideas and actions of these persons whom we have grouped together are in many symptomatic respects similar, and the current direction (though not the speed) of their political evolution is the same. It is in addition worth noting that this group, considered as a political phenomenon, is by no means confined to this country. As prominent European analogues we may mention: Victor Serge, Willi Schlamm, Andre Gide, Charles Plisnier, Ignazio Silone, Eric Wollenberg, Anton Ciliga. The political background and present course of each of these corresponds closely with that of our Group I, except that Serge and Plisnier were never associated with Stalinism.

There seems, then, ample prima facie justification for treating our subjects as a group. It is true, of course, that they do not like to think of themselves as a collectivity, a group. In their own minds and in public they seem to stress that they are “individuals”, “independent thinkers”; and this is related to a theoretic stress which they place upon Psychology, attacking revolutionists for “disregarding psychology” and blindly “reducing” everything to political terms. Indeed, this assertion of independent individuality and of the primacy of psychology is another of their group characteristics.

It is also true that it would be an over-simplification and indeed a serious error, to suggest that there are no important differences among them, to lump them together in a single mass. Harrison and Rorty, for example, are birds of a different political species, Harrison having now ended up unambiguously in the cage of the class enemy. Nor shall we maintain that each of these individuals, as individuals, will “necessarily” finish up on the same spot. We are writing not psychology nor morality but politics. Our aim is to analyze the nature and direction of a political phenomenon; and politics is concerned with groups, not individuals. Having determined the political nature of a group, we can say of any given individual only that if he thinks and acts consistently as a member of the group such and such an outcome will follow. But individuals are, perhaps fortunately, often inconsistent; and individuals change.

The Frying Pan of the Intellectuals

WE MAY NOTICE AT ONCE about our subjects that as compared with the Stalinist intellectuals and with most of the bourgeois intellectuals they have outstanding abilities, talents and moral virtues. This should not surprise us. The foulness of Stalinism and imperialism can today breed only maggots; in particular is it impossible for intellectuals to avoid degeneration not merely of their characters as human beings but also of their minds if for any length of time they give their allegiance to these allied monsters of the lie.

The chief talent of the intellectuals in our list is that of writing well. This almost all of them do. How refreshing it is to compare their styles with the dull and dreary pages of New Masses or Science And Society!

However, we should also observe that those with whom we are dealing are primarily “ideologists”: they are critics, philosophers, sociologic-political writers. Only one of them (Farrell) is a creative artist; Harrison, Wilson, and Adamic have written novels in passing, and Rorty a number of poems, but these are a subordinate part of their work. None among all of them is a physical scientist. What pretensions they have to empirical science of any sort are to be found in the dangerous fields of history, sociology and politics, where it is so hard to distinguish an hypothesis from a prejudice; and even in these fields, Hacker and Lundberg only have done any substantial original research.

We may further record that all of these individuals, some of them outstandingly, have many good and progressive deeds to record. In some cases for more than a generation, they have been in the forefront of many of the most important cases in this country and internationally where civil and human rights were at stake. Their names are linked with the fight for Sacco and Vanzetti, for the recognition of the Soviet Union, for Fred Beal, for the Scottsboro boys and Tom Mooney. With the exception of Counts, everyone of them made the vast social and personal sacrifice which was involved in serving on the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, and three of them were members of the Commission of Inquiry into the charges against Trotsky in the Moscow Trials. The work of the Committee and the Commission remains as an enduring monument; its influence has been felt throughout the world. Nor are their good deeds of the past only. We continue to find their names in the majority of those cases where men have joined efforts toward some genuinely progressive end.

It is hardly to be expected that such activities can be carried on without trouble; and they have, indeed, plenty of trouble. The troubles are of several sorts. One type might be called “craft troubles”: they find heavy obstacles placed in the way of the fruitful exercize of their talents. The bourgeoisie and the Stalinists, controlling between them the press, the magazines, the publishing houses, are not eager to give recognition to these persons who proclaim themselves against the status quo and against Stalinism. A none-too-subtle sabotage, increasing in recent years, scuttles their work or at the least handicaps it.

To add to these craft hazards are pervasive and equally painful personal troubles. Psychologists and anthropologists teach us that the pressure of public opinion, of social approval and disapproval, praise and blame, is one of the most powerful forces molding the human personality; and the bourgeoisie and the Stalinists have learned the lesson. Our subjects find themselves to be modified pariahs in their community. Old friends cut them dead or throw vicious insults at them. Public and private denunciation becomes commonplace; the lurid prose of the Kremlin apologists holds them up to the world as fascists, counter-revolutionists, German or Japanese spies, even – last bitter indignity – as Trotskyists. When serving in such an enterprise as the Trotsky Committee, to these are added an unremitting plague of telephone calls, letters and telegrams, all designed for the harshest possible effect on the nervous system.

Yet, in this vale of tears, where at least some trouble is the lot of every man, and where therefore judgment of troubles must be relative, it would be possible to exaggerate the ills of our subjects. None of them is forced into the loneliness of the mountain eagle; none is compelled to be altogether silent; and none as yet is exactly starving. In fact, after ten years of economic crisis during which even brokers and bankers have gone bankrupt, some seem to do rather well by themselves. Especially is this true of those who have either remained throughout on the bourgeois side or who have gone over to it. Each one under Group II may be presumed to use the larger form for his income tax reports. Chamberlain’s recognition by the owners of Fortune runs, it is said, well into five figures. Columbia University, second richest educational institution in the country, has given its fullest academic honors to Dewey and Counts, and their books are widely published and read. Lyons is able to combine public relations counsellorship with substantial free lance journalism and lecturing. The recent books of Adamic and Lundberg were not too badly treated by the general press. Though Eastman’s earlier defenses of the revolution had to content themselves with modest appearance in little magazines, his recent attacks on the socialist ideal are featured on the covers of Harper’s and Liberty. Hacker’s defense of liberal capitalism in his Graphic History does not seem to have injured his academic standing (also at Columbia) nor his access to publication. We understand that Harrison’s ringing break with Marxism (in the New Leader) was followed by negotiations for a well deserved appointment in the Federal Housing Administration ...

Dewey has often and brilliantly explained how the conflicts with which human beings unavoidably find themselves confronted give rise to ideas and ideals which are projected as instruments for solving those conflicts. (There is, of course, no a priori assurance that the given idea or ideal will actually be capable of solving the given conflict.) Out of the troubled conflicts of our subjects, an ideal, a dream emerges. In a world pressing tumultuously, imperiously against every one of its inhabitants, grinding and battering them from every direction, they seek a little peace, quiet, a chance to cultivate and bring to harvest their talents. They ask for freedom, meaning by freedom what Eastman, who is usually several steps in advance, has written: “Freedom is being in a position to do what comes into your own head, to act whether sooner or late on your own impulses.” Phrased somewhat differently: They ask to be able to do and write what they wish without having to accept the consequences when what they do and write affects others; they ask not to be pushed around by others who are sure of their ideas and intend to fight for them; they ask to be released from responsibility.

When Is a Program a Program?

IT IS A LITERAL and easily verifiable fact that not one of these intellectuals, in all the millions of words they have written and publicly spoken, has presented a new political program. Indeed, so far as explicit statement goes, we find in them very little reference to the concrete political issues of the day. It goes without saying that by “political program” we do not mean a list of empty generalities such as those with which Eastman ends his Harper’s article: “Problems of being and of universal history ... should be acknowledged to exist ... The various components of the [socialist] ideal should be analyzed and considered separately ... Those obviously fantastic ... should be thrown out ...”; nor the apostrophes to Truth and Freedom by which Hook has lately taken to climaxing his essays. No one need bother to agree or disagree with such abstractions, because agreement or disagreement commits one to nothing. A political program means a set of doctrines, principles, rules or directives which gives the unambiguous answers, or from which the answers may be derived, to the chief concrete political problems of the present time: war, insecurity, fascism, unemployment, the struggle for (or against) socialism ...

Eastman, as so often, gives the show away. At the end of his polemic against Burnham (New International, August 1938) he confesses openly that he has no (conscious) program. “If I live,” he promises, “I will complete my thesis.” But he “would not hurry”. To him, “it seems just now in America a period for deliberation.”

Let us pause for a moment to consider the meaning of this confession, assuming it to be true. What is Eastman (and almost any name on our list could be substituted for Eastman’s) saying? What is he saying, for example, to the French worker standing today with the whip of fascism descending toward his back? to the American worker plunged into the misery and despair of permanent mass unemployment and swamped by the tidal wave of Roosevelt’s armament preparations and his looming war? to his fellow-intellectuals? Eastman is saying: I, who am not a humble clerk in an office nor an obscure cog in an assembly line nor a timid teacher trying to keep a job in a high school, but a writer widely and publicly known, one who presumes to sit publicly in judgment on the great events of history, to publish my decrees on the Russian Revolution, the century-old struggles of the proletarian movement, the rise of fascism, the lot of humanity and its future, I who do not hesitate to attack and expose Lenin and Hitler and Stalin and Trotsky, I tell you: “Sorry, there is nothing to do about it; I regret that at present I have no answer to give you; you will just have to wait patiently until I get around to completing my notes – a page or two seems to be missing from my files.” And if meanwhile fascism completes its conquest of Europe, if the war begins with no organization of the forces against it ...? “Sorry, that’s not my responsibility ...”

But, our subjects uniformly reply, when we remind them that they have overlooked the detail of supplying us with a new program: “That’s not our affair. We are not politicians. Politics is not our field. We are – writers.”

We have heard this reply so often that we believe it, too, deserves a word of comment. In making this answer, we ask ourselves, whom are they trying most to fool? their general readers, us, or themselves? The truth of the matter is: with one or two partial exceptions, these are all thoroughly political people. They intervene constantly in political affairs; their interests, feelings, thoughts, conversations, personal relations, speeches, writings and actions are bound up predominantly with politics. Though members of no political parties, it is entirely safe to say that they are far more politically active than, for example, the median Socialist Party member, more active than many members even of such parties as the Communist Party or the Socialist Workers Party.

If they are not writing about politics most of the time, what in hell is it that they are writing about? About what are Hook’s books, his articles in the Modern Monthly, in the New Leader, in the Southern Review, most of his reviews in a dozen periodicals, his hundred-and-one speeches in a score of courses and forums? What is Harrison’s very novel about, if not politics? Where is politics absent from Stolberg’s essay on the New Deal, his book on the C.I.O., his ex cathedra review of The Revolution Betrayed in the Nation? What is Counts writing about when he publishes his thick volume on democracy? or Lundberg on the Sixty Families, with its concluding defense of New Dealism? or Chamberlain when he explains that Washington is “our state” in Common Sense? or Adamic, the immigrant boy who made good, when he covers the whole field in My America? or Lyons in his book about Russia, his column, his speeches? or the whole bunch in their recent New Leader essays? You will have to search through Rahv’s and Phillips’ and Dupee’s Partisan Review with a high-power microscope to find an article, whatever the alleged subject, that avoids politics. How about Hacker, now reviving evolutionary meliorism in his latest interpretations of American history? Or even such a one as Wilson, who is reported to say nowadays that “Writers should not sign anything; they should merely write” – what does he deal with in his book about his Soviet journey, his discussions of proletarian literature, his essays on Marx and Engels and Marxism, his New Republic article on the Moscow Trials, his ballyhooing of Willi Schlamm?

Let us finish with this tommyrot about “Not interested in politics; not politicians ...” once and for all. These are indeed “political animals” in a sense far more complete than Aristotle had in mind when he first applied the characterization to men in general.

They are above all preoccupied with politics, they are in their own not obscure way politicians. The trouble is precisely that their politics are negative, irresponsible and unprincipled.

These adjectives may seem to be harsh, part of the “insufferable Trotskyist tone” which our subjects are not the last to criticize. As is usual with us, however, we employ them not as mere careless emotive epithets, but as carefully meant description.

Their politics are negative in the sense that they are always and constantly criticizing and attacking everybody else’s politics, often in the sharpest conceivable manner, on every type of question from the highest branches of theory to the latest move in the trade unions or the labor party, but seldom making concrete and positive proposals of their own. If anyone has any doubts about this generalization, he may remove them through acquaintance with their works.

Their politics are irresponsible in the sense that they do not lay their cards on the table, state and make explicit the premises from which they derive their particular conclusions (they do not even to themselves), and thus they can jump from one week to the next in and out of organizations, back and forth from one position to another, one attitude to another, without being checked up and called to account. If anyone has any doubts about this generalization, he may remove them by studying their actions during the past couple of years.

Their politics are unprincipled because their specific political actions and positions are not derived from consciously, explicitly recognized principles (whether such principles were right or wrong would be irrelevant to this point). If anyone has any doubts about this generalization, let him try to find such consciously and explicitly recognized principles in their writings.

Now, though our subjects have not presented – and, we may be confident, will not present – any new program, it would be very naive to suppose that they have no program at all. Like all those who intervene more than sporadically in politics, they of course have a program – if not a program openly stated, then a program which may be deduced from their actions and the positions they take on specific questions at issue. In fact, our group may be said to have not one but two programs: a “formal”, avowed or alleged program which has been developed at length in the writings of its more prominent spokesmen, to some extent in the writings of all of them; an “actual”, politically decisive program which we may piece together from their actions and specific positions on concrete questions. It is to these two programs that we turn.

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Last updated: 29 February 2016