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James M. Fenwick

>Books in Review

Dubious History

(July 1950)

From New International, Vol. XVI No. 4, July–August 1950, pp. 252–253.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

An Essay for Our Times
by H. Stuart Hughes
Alfred A. Knopf, 1950. 196 pp., $2.75.

Not the least impressive aspect of the national and world crisis which began in 1929 and has continued up to the present has been the almost total incapacity of the United States professoriat to predict it, analyze it after it has occurred, or propose a defensible way out.

The professors whose helplessness was rudely revealed by the depression had been pretty generally shaped by the idyllic ’twenties. It is only now that a second generation, molded by depression, war, and the post-war insecurity, is making its voice heard. It is a lamentable fact that these events have only made the confusion worse confounded.

H. Stuart Hughes, now an assistant professor of history at Harvard, begins his book with a description of the successive environments which he, as a typical member of the most intellectually sophisticated of his generation, was subjected. A socialist of the Popular Front persuasion during the ’thirties, he was able, to justify the war as a “war for socialism – a democratic socialism which (in a phrase now worn and nearly meaningless) would serve as a bridge between the Communist East and the liberal West.” During the war our Harvard Horatius, like so many bright young men, was to be found defending the bridge to socialism in the field artillery, the OSS, and the State Department, it is almost needless to remark.

Unfortunately, almost “before we knew what had happened, we found two embattled forces, opposed both nationally and ideologically, facing each other across continents, oceans, and polar icecap. The prospect left the most stout-hearted at a loss.” Despite everything, however, he is still able to say today that more “of the underlying assumptions of this essay derive from Marx than from any other source.”

“The new irrationalist temper in thought,” Hughes states in beginning his analysis of the modern dilemma, “the doubts as to the future of our civilization and the capacity of Western man to cope with his spiritual environment – these have set off our time rather sharply from its predecessors. We shall find traces of this mood of doubt and uncertainty in a wide variety of fields.”

This malaise was variously expressed in the thinking of such social analysts as Henry Adams, Freud, Jung, Adler, Fromm, Toynbee, and Spengler. It also found expression in the novel – in its purest form in the works of Kafka, of whom Sartre said:

“But what we were particularly sensitive to was that in this trial perpetually in session, which ends abruptly and evilly, whose judges are unknown and out of reach, in the main efforts of the accused to know the leaders of the prosecution, in this defense patiently assembled which turns against the defender and figures in the evidence for the prosecution, in this absurd present which the characters live with great earnestness and whose keys are elsewhere, we recognize history and ourselves in history.”

So far, so good, and even comfortably platitudinous.

Platitudinous, but not comfortably so, is the rest of the book. Hughes begins with a rousing demonstration that none can be so brave under Stalinist totalitarianism in Russia as an assistant professor of history comfortably resident in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Since the middle thirties,” he booms, “the Soviet Union has been a socialist state – within the usual definition of the term. The chief means of production have been nationalized ... if every Soviet citizen were to receive the same wage, in a country with as low a standard of living as the USSR all would live in virtual squalor, and there would be no margin for the cultivation of the arts or even for maintaining a decent showing before the outside world ... Perhaps we should consign the whole notion of equalitarianism to the disrepute of that utopianism which Marx and Engels never tired of attacking.”

“We may surmise,” says Hughes, “that in its original and reformist guise Marxism was too rationalistic to enroll overwhelming popular support, too theoretical to formulate a concrete, unquestioned plan of action ... As a late product of Western rationalism, it remained closed to the unfolding spirit of our era.” Faced with the “almost primitive force” of the Russian peasant it “was up to Marxism to take the place that the Orthodox Church had forfeited ...”

The resultant society has its values, however much we may deplore some of its aspects.

“In the East the rulers of the Soviet Union have thought in terms of ‘doing things,’ of collective enterprise, of shared work and enjoyment. Certainly the consciousness of participation in building a socialist society – however infrequently it may be felt with any real understanding – represents a civilized value.”

We must therefore work for a peaceful co-existence of the United States and Russia, for “a clear victory for either side, particularly a military victory, would mean the destruction of something precious in terms of civilized values.” Hughes is himself dubious of the possibility of such a solution.

That even such a solution can be envisaged is possible in the first instance only by a total absence in the book of an analysis of the economic dynamics underlying the cold war and in the second by a bland idealization of the political realities at home and abroad which underlie the cold war.

That Hughes can propose the freezing of the status quo, with all the economic, political, and social inequities current in the world today, not only reveals a bureaucratic temper bearing a strong Stalinoid cast but also identifies him as an example of the regression from the nineteenth century rationalism which he dwells upon so patronizingly throughout the book.

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