Fenwick Archive  |  Trotskyist Writers  |  ETOL Home Page

James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

Blaming It on Baby

(16 June 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 24, 16 June 1947, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Like many other popular beliefs, the concept of the absent-minded professor has a considerable basis in fact. Ours is a society which demands a great deal of specialization in every field. This has produced startling results, of which the atomic bomb is a frightening example. But the one-sidedness which this specialization causes produces almost equally startling phenomena when these monarchs of the classroom begin to issue speeches from the throne on fields unrelated to their specialty.

The social sciences in particular have recently fallen victim to such periodic royal pronouncements. For such persons the study of society is conceived of as being in the intellectual public domain, where one man’s opinion is as good as another’s, and where the scientific method, which rigorously disciplines their investigations in their specialties, can be happily cast aside.

The most recent person to air his views on the world’s ills is Dr. Arnold Gesell, director of the Yale University clinic on child development. It must be said that the value of Gesell’s views on social problems is inversely proportional to the value of his exceptionally interesting work in gross observation of child development.

Gesell on War

Gesell’s views were recently summed up by the New York Times as follows: “By meeting ‘the natural history of aggression’ in all children, with a science of child development and intelligent guidance of anger, fear and self-assertion in the rising generation, we can hope to control hostile aggressions and war at their psychological source and make war impossible because it will be unthinkable ... ‘aggressive and hostile tendencies are the natural result of inborn temperament, experience and training, and maturity.’”

Such views are not uncommon. They have been expounded in different and more stimulating form by persons such as Freud. But they disintegrate upon the slightest contact with reality.

What Gesell fails to establish is the connection between the indubitable “aggressive and hostile tendencies” of the individual personality and large scale modern war. If such universal aggressive tendencies are the basis of modern war Gesell has considerable explaining to do. As spokesman for the inarticulate if not silent babies of the world I’d like to ask Gesell a few questions:

Why, for instance, does every nation have to resort to conscription? According to Laski, speaking at the last labor party conference, the English army could hope to raise only 18,000 to 31,000 troops on a voluntary basis.

Why, if this aggressive instinct is so all-pervasive, must every army operate on the basis of rigid discipline? The most “aggressive” army of all, the Wehrmacht, was held together in good part by a ruthless system of terrorism.

How account for historic events like the Russian Revolution, which was made possible by the "pacific" rather than "aggressive” instincts of the troops?

Why, in the recent war, were these “hostile and aggressive tendencies” directed against the Germans and the Japanese, who few soldiers had even seen – much less have a personal hatred of, and not against Negroes, say, who live in the United States and against whom most whites do have an antipathy?

Why is this inherent aggression currently directed against the Russians, who but yesterday were our friends?

Why does it sometimes take the form of civil war – and at other times of foreign abroad?

A Social Question

Even under capitalism individuals do not normally settle differences by violent or lethal means, in spite of their “aggressive and hostile tendencies." At the University of Chicago roundtable broadcast, where Gesell’s theories were contested by Dr. Adrian Vander Veer, we are sure that Gesell had little desire to wheel up an M-6 tank and give his estimable colleague the business.

War is a social question whose roofs will not be discovered by prowling into childhood behavior. They will be discovered by bringing to the study of society the same scrupulousness observed in applying the scientific method in other fields.

The foul interests underlying world politics have seldom been so clearly and so frequently exposed as they have in the two years which have just passed. The root evil is capitalism.

That Gesell is so little able to perceive it affords one more unfortunate proof of how little the middle-class scientific intelligentsia, profound as its insights may be in other fields, is able to rise above the regressive social ideas of its times.

Fenwick Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 12 October 2022