Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page



Dos Passos’ Crumbling Ground

(February 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 1, February 1942, pp. 31–32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Ground We Stand On
by John Dos Passos
Harcourt, Brace & Co., 420 pp., $3.50

If we did not believe that John Dos Passos is a serious and conscientious writer, it would be fairly easy to poke fun at his latest book. Were it not for his explicit statement that he does have an ideological purpose for writing the book, it could be dismissed as a very confused and discordant attempt of a novelist to enter the field of early American history, which would have been better left in more expert hands. But such an easy approach cannot honestly be used, if only because of what Dos Passos has not succeeded in doing.

He has written a series of biographical sketches of American colonial and revolutionary figures, together with an introduction which explains the purpose of these sketches. At the outset, it should be noted that the book is not a potboiler; it is not an attempt to capitalize on a reputation in order to make some extra change. Despite the evident sincerity and seriousness of purpose, it will, however, reveal very little about American history. All that it will reveal is that Dos Passos, an honest and conscientious student of contemporary life, has gone back to “the roots of the American tradition” in order to find some set of guiding principles with which to solve the problems of our day. “In times of change and danger,” he writes, “when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the sorry present ...” But nowhere does our author succeed in either locating or making visible this lifeline.

No one can dispute, of course, the indispensable relevance of the past, either in terms of historical experience or intellectual creed, for an understanding of the present. But what is first needed is an understanding of the events and creeds of the past in the context of their intrinsic and internal development and in relation to their own times; otherwise, it is foolish to expect to find any relationship to the present. And it is this failure to comprehend the events and creeds of colonial and revolutionary America in their historical context that explains Dos Passos’ failure to contribute, to even convey a conviction that he believes he is contributing anything that will help humanity in its present dilemma. In turn – the paradox is only apparent – it is his failure to understand the present which blurs his picture of the past. If there were any annihilating proof necessary of the thesis which Dos Passos professes with an air of virtual supererogation – the intimate connection between past and present and the necessity of learning from one in order to solve the problems of the other – it is provided, with complete irony, in the difficulties in which Dos Passos finds himself because of his inability to comprehend either the present or the past in terms of themselves or their interrelations.

What does interest us here, however, is Dos Passos’ claim to have found in the creed of his heroes (Roger Williams, Sam Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Joel Barlow) a theory of political science which should be substituted for Marxism by liberals and radicals in solving the problems of present day society. And what is even more interesting is Dos Passos’ failure not merely to prove the validity and relevance of this creed, but his very failure to even state its principles and contents.

For the nearest that Dos Passos comes to any statement of the creed of Williams, Adams and the rest, which he would propose for present-day America, is the idea that there is a “struggle between privileged men who have managed to get hold of the levers of power and the people in general with their vague and changing aspirations for equality, for justice, for some kind of gentler brotherhood and peace ...” and that it is necessary to side with the latter. But merely to restate so loosely (”the people in general”!) what we Marxists categorize as (in what Dos Passos politely calls the “double-talk of the Marxist ideology”) the existence of class societies in all previous history is not very much of a contribution to an understanding of either the past or the present.

Dos Passos Owes a Debt

It is not, of course, that Dos Passos is without a guiding creed completely. Insofar as it is possible to divine his intentions from his statement of introduction and his sketches, we Would say that it is essentially a version of Parrington’s concept of the “generic liberal.” This concept, which, by the way, Parrington was continually forced to qualify and at times virtually abandon because of its inability to actually explain the changes and growing complexities of American life, holds that there is a certain attitude toward societarian problems which is essentially static despite the dynamic character of society. It has never been very specifically defined; and Dos Passos is far less successful in his attempts than was Parrington. Parrington had an acute sense of the developmental line of American society and hung onto the concept as a sort of safety anchor in a world whose problems he found increasingly complex and insoluble. But Dos Passos cannot even blow a breath of life into the concept; it is for him merely a dead abstraction. To merely state, as he does, that it is necessary to find a “gentler brotherhood” and to respect civil liberties is very noble, but who would maintain that it provides a straw, let alone a lifeline?

On one occasion, Dos Passos attempts to concretize his belief with the statement that “when property rights conflict with human rights, human rights must be regarded first.” But Dos Passos never attempts to show, not once, how this doctrine was applied and interpreted by Williams, Adams, Jefferson et al.; how, if at all, they held contradictory views about it; how, if at all, the doctrine changed in significance and content for them as they matured in years and American society took the vast historical leap from colonial dependence to national independence; and, most important of all, how the belief in this doctrine can affect American life today or how it can be used as a tool for social action.

[Any amateur, incidentally, could tell Dos Passos that his manner of posing the question is sloppy, unhistorical and raises more questions than it answers. To what degree do property and human rights clash today? To what degree did they clash in 1776? To what degree is this clash incidental to our form of economic organization, or basic to it? What is a property right, and can it also be considered a “human right”? ETC.!]

Narratives for History

We are therefore left with a residue that consists of unintegrated narratives of portions of the lives of Williams, Adams and the rest. There is no skeletal guiding line in the book. It may be in Dos Passos’ head; but it most certainly is not in the book.

Dos Passos might object: “But my method was not to write an explicit history of the ideas of these men, but rather to show through portraits of the crucial and representative moments of their lives how they reacted to their problems in order to provide a guiding lesson for ours.” This method, a legitimate if inferior one, must also require considerable discussion of the intellectual antecedents from which these men derived and developed their ideas, not to mention some critical discussion of the ideas themselves and in relation to the social forces of the times.

But even here Dos Passos fails. One can learn more from Parrington’s dozen or so pages on Roger Williams than in Dos Passos’ 138. Imagine a discussion of Williams which scarcely mentions his mysticism, or attempts to explain its relation to his democratic creed; which does not once attempt to explain both in terms of theological doctrine itself as well as their social causes and reflections, the several religious shifts which Williams made during his lifetime. Williams, it is true, deserves the rôle of hero, but we are never told why, other than that he believed in religious toleration. But what is really important is why he came to believe in it, and on that there is silence. And it would seem that it is not too difficult to trace the connection between his Seekers’ creed and his belief in religious toleration or to explain what the Seekers believed as well as their connection to the English social scene!

This disregard of, or lack of interest in, the ideological spurs to the actions of the men he partially describes, becomes quite ludicrous when Dos Passos spends pages detailing Jefferson’s architectural tastes as a reflection of his democratic concepts, but does not once discuss that Jeffersonian creed itself, for which we are to abandon Marxism; nor its antecedents, nor its present-day ramifications. Now, whatever else one may think of Jeffersonianism, no one can deny that it possesses a considerable body of ideas nor their right to serious examination, especially when a writer is asking people to accept it in place of a creed which they are to reject!

Rejection of Marxism Brought Forth the Book

The rest of the book is open to essentially similar criticisms, so there is no need to repeat them. It is only necessary to add that whenever Dos Passos turns from character sketch to a portrait of society, he is in an even worse mess. Peculiarly enough, he does not write of American society but rather drags in lengthy and involved descriptions of the Cromwellian period in England and of the French Revolution. The former is characterized by a chaotic jumble of details; the latter by a Girondist bias and a vile portrait of Robespierre worthy of Hilaire Belloc. (Robespierre, we are informed, was just a bloody villain ... like Lenin.)

Dos Passos has succeeded in none of his aims. He has not portrayed the lifeline from the past to the present. He has not given a relevant or useful picture of revolutionary America, or even adequate character sketches of its leaders.

Even his writing seldom comes to life. He lacks that quality best described as “historical feel” – the ability to portray the drama and the significance of an historical period in a related whole, which provides details without losing itself in them – mainly because he is not dear as to what was or is. (How different from the Dos Passos who wrote Body of an American or Woodrow Wilson or Randolph Bourne!) He has moved from a vague belief in a vague Marxism to an even vaguer confusion, and that confusion is only occasionally congruous with Jeffersonianism.

The book, then, is a complete failure. Its sole virtue is that it is the failure of the conscientious groping of a man whose mind at present can only be described as in a seriously preoccupied muddle.

Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 29 December 2014