Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What Comes Naturally

Note: With the permission of the author, we are reprinting below Louis Menand's classic essay against the reductionism of Stephen Pinker and other advocates of "The new science of human nature".  Menand's essay, What Comes Naturally: Does evolution explain who we are? first appeared in the New Yorker edition of Nov. 25, 2002. Menand, who teaches at Harvard, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2002 for his book, The Metaphysical Club. A brief comment follows the Menand essay.
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What Comes Naturally
Does evolution explain who we are?
BY LOUIS MENAND



 “The new sciences of human nature.” Well, why not? The old sciences of human nature didn't have such a fabulous track record. They gave us segregated drinking fountains, “invented spelling,” and the glass ceiling—all consequences of scientific theories about the way human beings really are. Possibly, there is a lesson there, which is that the sciences of human nature tend to validate the practices and preferences of whatever regime happens to be sponsoring them. In totalitarian regimes, dissidence is treated as a mental illness. In apartheid regimes, interracial contact is treated as unnatural. In free-market regimes, self-interest is treated as hardwired.

Maybe this is unfair to the new sciences of human nature, though. It could be that the problem with the old sciences was simply that they weren't scientific enough—that they were mostly wishful thinking projected onto dubious data about skull size and the effects of estrogen on the ability to balance a checkbook. Today's scientists might have the capacity to get right down there among the chromosomes and the neurotransmitters, and to send back reports, undistorted by fear, favor, or the prospect of funding, about what's going on. Maybe the new sciences of human nature are really scientific. It's worth a look.

Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at M.I.T. and the author of an entertaining and popular book on language (his specialty), called “The Language Instinct,” and a more wide-ranging volume, also popular, called “How the Mind Works.” His new book, “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” (Viking; $27.95), recycles some of the material published in “How the Mind Works” but puts it to a more prescriptive use. Pinker has a robust faith in “the new sciences of human nature” (his phrase)—he was formerly the director of M.I.T.'s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience—but his views in “The Blank Slate” are based almost entirely on two branches of the new sciences: evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics.

These are both efforts to explain mind and behavior biologically, as products of natural selection and genetic endowment. Unless you are a creationist, there is nothing exceptionable about the approach. If opposable thumbs are the result of natural selection, there is no reason not to assume that the design of the brain is as well. And if we inherit our eye color and degree of hairiness from our ancestors we probably inherit our talents and temperaments from them, too. The question isn't whether there is a biological basis for human nature. We're organisms through and through; biology goes, as they say, all the way down. The question is how much biology explains about life out here on the twenty-first-century street.

Pinker's idea is that it explains much more than some people—he calls these people “intellectuals”—think it does, and that the failure, or refusal, to acknowledge this has led to many regrettable things, including the French Revolution, modern architecture, and the crimes of Josef Stalin. Intellectuals deny biology, according to Pinker, because it interferes with their pet theories of mind and behavior. These are the Blank Slate (the belief that the mind is wholly shaped by the environment), the Noble Savage (the notion that people are born good but are corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (the idea that there is a nonbiological agent in our heads with the power to change our nature at will). The “intellectuals” in Pinker's book are social scientists, progressive educators, radical feminists, academic Marxists, liberal columnists, avant-garde arts types, government planners, and postmodernist relativists. The good guys are the cognitive scientists and ordinary folks, whose common sense, except when it has been damaged by listening to intellectuals, generally correlates with what cognitive science has discovered. I wish I could say that Pinker's view of the world of ideas is more nuanced than this.

Many pages of “The Blank Slate” are devoted to bashing away at the Lockean-Rousseauian-Cartesian scarecrow that Pinker has created. What the new sciences show, he says, is that, contrary to “the romanticism of intellectuals,” nurture is usually no match for nature. Rehabilitation often fails to cure violent criminals; identical twins raised separately exhibit uncanny similarities; reading bedtime stories has little effect on I.Q. Findings like these suggest that there are limits to what we can expect from efforts to make people happier, smarter, and better citizens by manipulating their environment. When revolutionaries remake society from the ground up, on the theory that a new kind of human being will emerge, or when feminists argue that if little boys played with dolls and teacups the world would be a less violent place, they are, in Pinker's view, breaking eggs with no hope of an omelette. They are simply frustrating drives and instincts that will find an outlet sooner or later. It's not nice to fool human nature.

But where does this leave us? There are limits, after all, to the idea of limits. We manipulate the environment constantly in order to shape attitudes and behavior. We employ police to intimidate people into obeying traffic signs and anti-littering ordinances; we require kids to go to school; we air-condition workplaces and provide them with coffee stations. Peer pressure constrains the expression of sexual desire. Happy hours relieve feelings of stress. Religious services inspire people to do good works. Most of life is conducted in an environment of man-made stimulants and inhibitors, incentives and deterrents. Many impulses are channelled or suppressed, and many talents and feelings are acquired, and have no specific genetic basis or evolutionary logic at all. Music appreciation, for instance, seems to be wired in at about the level of “Hot Cross Buns.” But people learn to enjoy Wagner. They even learn to sing Wagner. One suspects that enjoying Wagner, singing Wagner, anything to do with Wagner, is in gross excess of the requirements of natural selection. To say that music is the product of a gene for “art-making,” naturally selected to impress potential mates—which is one of the things Pinker believes—is to say absolutely nothing about what makes any particular piece of music significant to human beings. No doubt Wagner wished to impress potential mates; who does not? It is a long way from there to “Parsifal.”

Pinker doesn't care much for art, though. When he does care for something—cognitive science, for example—he is all in favor of training people to do it, even though, as he admits, many of the methods and assumptions of modern science are counter-intuitive. The fact that innate mathematical ability is still in the Stone Age distresses him; he has fewer problems with Stone Age sex drives. He objects to using education “to instill desirable attitudes toward the environment, gender, sexuality, and ethnic diversity”; but he insists that “the obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education.” He thinks that we should be teaching economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics, even if we have to stop teaching literature and the classics. It's O.K. to rewire people's “natural” sense of a just price or the movement of a subatomic particle, in other words, but it's a waste of time to tinker with their untutored notions of gender difference.

Having it both ways is an irritating feature of “The Blank Slate.” Pinker can write, in refutation of the scarecrow theory of violent behavior, “The sad fact is that despite the repeated assurances that 'we know the conditions that breed violence,' we barely have a clue,” and then, a few pages later, “It is not surprising, then, that when African American teenagers are taken out of underclass neighborhoods they are no more violent or delinquent than white teenagers.” Well, that should give us one clue. He sums the matter up: “With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.” This is just another way of saying that it is in human nature to socialize and to be socialized, which is, pragmatically, exactly the view of the “intellectuals.”

The insistence on deprecating the efficacy of socialization leads Pinker into absurdities that he handles with a blitheness that would be charming if his self-assurance were not so overdeveloped. He argues, for example, that democracy, the rule of law, and women's reproductive freedom are all products of evolution. The Founding Fathers understood that the ideas of power sharing and individual rights are grounded in human nature. And he quotes, with approval, the claim of two evolutionary psychologists that the “evolutionary calculus” explains why women evolved “to exert control over their own sexuality, over the terms of their relationships, and over the choice of which men are to be the fathers of their children.” Now, democracy, individual rights, and women's sexual autonomy are concepts almost nowhere to be found, even in the West, before the eighteenth century. Either human beings spent ten thousand years denying their own nature by slavishly obeying the whims of the rich and powerful, cheerfully burning heretics at the stake, and arranging their daughters' marriages (which would imply a pretty effective system of socialization), or modern liberal society is largely a social construction. Which hypothesis seems more plausible?

In 1859, Charles Darwin announced his conclusion that all life forms are the result of processes that are natural, chance-generated, and blind. There is, he thought, no “meaning” to evolutionary development. Evolution is just a by-product of the fact that organisms have to compete with one another in order to survive. If there were no struggle, if some organisms didn't have to die so that others could live, there would be no development. That is all evolution amounts to. This recognition seems to have made Darwin literally sick. But, ever since “On the Origin of Species” and “The Descent of Man” (1871), people have used Darwin's theory to explain why one or another way of managing human affairs is “natural.” The notion is that a particular arrangement must have been “selected for”—as though the struggles among individuals and groups and ideas were nature's way of making sure that we end up with the best. Evolutionary psychology is therefore a philosophy for winners: it can be used to justify every outcome. This is why Pinker has persuaded himself that liberal democracy and current opinion about women's sexual autonomy have biological foundations. It's a “scientific” validation of the way we live now. But every aspect of life has a biological foundation in exactly the same sense, which is that unless it was biologically possible it wouldn't exist. After that, it's up for grabs.

The other trouble with evolutionary psychology is that it is not really psychology. In general, the views that Pinker derives from “the new sciences of human nature” are mainstream Clinton-era views: incarceration is regrettable but necessary; sexism is unacceptable, but men and women will always have different attitudes toward sex; dialogue is preferable to threats of force in defusing ethnic and nationalist conflicts; most group stereotypes are roughly correct, but we should never judge an individual by group stereotypes; rectitude is all very well, but “noble guys tend to finish last”; and so on. People who share these beliefs probably didn't need science to arrive at them, but the science is undoubtedly reassuring. On one subject, though, Pinker does take an unconventional position. This is the matter of child rearing.

Here Pinker relies on a 1998 book called “The Nurture Assumption,” by Judith Rich Harris, which has been the object of some controversy in the field of developmental psychology. Harris claimed that “shared family environments”—that is, parents—have little or no effect on a child's personality. (Strictly speaking, she claimed that parenting does not account for the variation in differences in personality, which is what genetic science measures.) Biological siblings reared together are no more alike, or less different, than biological siblings reared in separate families. Half of personality, Harris argued, is the product of genes, and half is the product of what she called the “unique environment”—that is, the particular experiences of the individual child. Harris suggested that children's peers might be the principal source of this environmental input. This is distinctly not Clinton-era thinking. It was Hillary Clinton, after all, who sent parents of older children into a depression by announcing that personality is shaped in the first three years of life. If you missed those bedtime stories, there was apparently no way to make it up. Harris's theory makes nonsense of this anxiety, as it does of virtually all expert child-rearing advice, which Pinker calls “flapdoodle.”

What is personality, though? The answer turns out to be quite specific. The new sciences of human nature have discovered that personality has exactly five dimensions: people are, in varying degrees, either open to experience or incurious, conscientious or undirected, extroverted or introverted, agreeable or antagonistic, and neurotic or stable. (This is known in the literature as the Five-Factor Model, or FFM. The five dimensions are referred to by the acronym OCEAN.) All five attributes are partly heritable, and they are what behavioral geneticists look to for a definition of personality. It seems that there is no need for finer tuning, because OCEAN accounts for everything. “Most of the 18,000 adjectives for personality traits in an unabridged dictionary can be tied to one of these five dimensions,” as Pinker explains.

When Pinker and Harris say that parents do not affect their children's personalities, therefore, they mean that parents cannot make a fretful child into a serene adult. It's irrelevant to them that parents can make their children into opera buffs, water-skiers, food connoisseurs, bilingual speakers, painters, trumpet players, and churchgoers—that parents have the power to introduce their children to the whole supra-biological realm—for the fundamental reason that science cannot comprehend what it cannot measure.

Science can measure anxiety. This is not just because people will report themselves, in surveys, to be more or less anxious; it is also because a genetic basis for anxiety has been identified. People with a shorter version of a stretch of the DNA that inhibits the serotonin-transporter gene on chromosome 17 are more likely to be anxious. That chronic anxiety is biological—that it is not caused solely by circumstance—is shown by the fact that medication containing a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (that is, an anti-depressant) can relieve it. (Would medication count as nurture or as nature?) But that's just the biology. The psychology is everything that the organism does to cope with its biology. Innately anxious people develop all kinds of strategies for overcoming, disguising, avoiding, repressing, and, sometimes, exploiting their tendency to nervousness. These strategies are acquired—people aren't born with them—and they are constructed from elements that the environment provides. The mind can work only with what it knows, and one of the things it knows is parents, who often become major players in the psychic drama of anxiety maintenance. The mere fact of having “the gene for anxiety” determines nothing, which is why some anxious people become opera buffs, some become water-skiers, and some just sit and stare out the window, brooding on the fact that their parents did not read them enough bedtime stories. These people are unlikely to be relieved by learning that cognitive science has determined that bedtime stories are overrated.

An obsession with the mean point of the bell curve has sometimes led scientists to forget that the “average person” is a mathematical construct, corresponding to no actual human being. It represents, in many cases, a kind of lowest common denominator. Yet scientists like Pinker treat it as a universal species norm. The classic case of this kind of apotheosis of the average is the kind of study, reported in the Science Times, in which the ideal female face is constructed by blending all the features identified by people as most beautiful. The result is a homogenized, anodyne image with no aesthetic or erotic charge at all, far less alluring than many of the “outlying” variants used to derive it. Pinker's evolutionary theory of beauty has the same effect. “An eye for beauty,” he says, “locks onto faces that show signs of health and fertility—just as one would predict if it had evolved to help the beholder find the fittest mate.” Elsewhere, he explains that “the study of evolutionary aesthetics is also documenting the features that make a face or body beautiful. The prized lineaments are those that signal health, vigor, and fertility.” But if this were all the eye required the girl in the Pepsodent commercial would be the most desirable woman on earth. And the only person who thinks that is the guy in the Pepsodent commercial. People don't go for faces that deviate from the “ideal” because they can't have the ideal. They go for them because the deviation is what makes them attractive.

So it is with most of the things we care about—food, friends, recreation, art. Biology reverts to the mean; civilization does not. The mind is a fabulator. It is designed (by natural selection, if you like) to dream up ideas and experiences away from the mean. Its overriding instinct is to be counter-instinctual; otherwise, we could put consciousness to sleep at an early age. The mind has no steady state; it is (as Wallace Stevens said) never satisfied. And it induces the organism to go to fantastic lengths to develop capacities that have no biological necessity. The more defiant something is of the instinctive, the typical, and the sufficient, the more highly it is prized. This is why we have the “Guinness Book of World Records,” the Gautama Buddha, and the Museum of Modern Art. They represent the repudiation of the norm.

The point is self-evident, and you might think Pinker would just fold it into his theory. But he doesn't. Deviations make him suspicious, and modern art, in his book, is the prime suspect. Pinker believes not only that evolutionary psychology can explain why human beings create and consume art (it's mostly for reasons having to do with the drive for prestige). He believes that evolutionary psychology can explain what is wrong with art today—the decline of the high-art traditions, the loss of the critic's social status, and the “pretentious and unintelligible scholarship” of contemporary humanities departments. “I will seek,” he says, “a diagnosis for these three ailing endeavors.”

The key, it is no surprise, is the denial of human nature. “The giveaway may be found,” Pinker advises, “in a famous statement from Virginia Woolf: 'In or about December 1910, human nature changed.' ” She was referring, he says, to “the new philosophy of modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism,” which is “more Marxist and far more paranoid,” and which gave us “Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (a crucifix in a jar of the artist's urine), Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary smeared in elephant dung,” and similar outré fare. But “Woolf was wrong,” he tells us. “Human nature did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter.”

It seems that aesthetics, unlike cognitive science, is not a body of knowledge worth acquiring. Pinker thinks that any moral sophistication derived from exposure to élite art can be instilled much more effectively by “middlebrow realistic fiction or traditional education.” So if people want to hang a painting of a red barn or a weeping clown above their couch, he says, “it's none of our damn business.” The preference for red-barn and weeping-clown paintings has been naturally selected. In fact, the “universality of basic visual tastes” has been proved, Pinker points out, by the artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who, in 1993, surveyed people's artistic preferences for color, subject matter, style, and so on. They proceeded to make a painting that incorporated all of the top-rated elements: it was a nineteenth-century realist landscape featuring children, deer, and the figure of George Washington. Pinker notes that the painting exemplifies “the kind of landscape that had been characterized as optimal for our species by researchers in evolutionary aesthetics.”

Jesus wept. To begin with, Virginia Woolf did not write, “In or about December 1910, human nature changed.” What she wrote was “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” The sentence appears in an essay called “Character in Fiction,” which attacks the realist novelists of the time for treating character as entirely a product of outer circumstance—of environment and social class. These novelists look at people's clothes, their jobs, their houses, Woolf says, “but never . . . at life, never at human nature.” Modernist fiction, on the other hand, because it presents character from the inside, shows how persistent personality is, and how impervious to circumstance. Woolf, in short, was a Pinkerite.

Pinker needed only to have looked through any trot on modernist writing to see his error. One of Woolf's principal specimens of the new, post-realist fiction was Joyce's “Ulysses,” a novel about twentieth-century Dublin whose characters are all based on characters in the Odyssey. You can't get a much finer tribute to universal human nature than that. The modernists were obsessed with the perdurability of human nature. This is, as Woolf said, precisely what distinguishes them from the realists and romantics who preceded them. It's why Kandinsky “invented” abstraction (to help preserve, he said, “the element of pure and eternal art, found among all human beings, among all peoples and at all times”). It's why Picasso put African masks on the prostitutes in “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.” “Heart of Darkness,” “Women in Love,” “A Passage to India,” “Sweeney Erect,” “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”—they are as explicitly about the intractability of human aggression and desire as an evolutionary psychologist could wish. There is nothing Marxist about them. The preferred mode of orthodox Marxism was not modernism; it was realism.

“Postmodernism” might, indeed, be explained as a reaction against the modernist faith in “pure art” and human nature. But what does that have to do with beauty? Beauty is an effect produced by an object. Pinker has no more looked at the “postmodernist” work he reviles than he has read the Woolf essay he misquotes. Like Tom Wolfe, whose attacks on modern painting in “The Painted Word” he quotes, Pinker thinks that modern art is all ideas because it is only as ideas that he can experience it. In fact, Ofili's painting is not “smeared in elephant dung,” and Serrano's “Piss Christ” is not “a crucifix in a jar of the artist's urine.” It's a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine, and, technically and formally, a rather beautiful and evocative piece. It would satisfy a number of Komar and Melamid's populist criteria. Many people find it offensive, of course, but that reaction, too, is instinctive, and the discordance of the two sensations is part of the experience the object provokes. “Piss Christ” is not the most profound work of art ever created, but it is not just a crude prank.

As for Komar and Melamid's paint-by-polling: it is the art-world equivalent of the Science Times' ideal face. Komar and Melamid are satirists. They set out to find the visual lowest common denominator, and the work they produced (called “United States: Most Wanted Painting”) is preposterous even as kitsch. It tells us as much about art as a single dish combining all the flavors people said they liked would tell us about cuisine. Darwin's fundamental insight as a biologist was that, among members of a species, what is important is not the similarities but the differences. If human beings were identical, a single change in the environment could wipe out the race. Similarity, ultimately, is death. So why do Darwin's followers in evolutionary psychology want to make what people have most in common into a social good?

What the new sciences of human nature seem to show, for all their investigations down there among the genes and the neural networks, is that “human nature” is as much an abstraction as “God” or “the universal law.” It is a magic wand that people wave over the practices they approve of. If that makes them feel better, who can complain? Human nature is never the reason for their approval, though. It would be nice if we could justify our choices by pointing silently to our genes. But we can't. Our genes, unfortunately, are even stupider than we are. ♦

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Comment by Alex Steiner

Menand's take-down of Steven Pinker, whose book, 'The Blank Slate', purports to provide a new and 'scientific' understanding of human nature, is a brilliant dissection of the pretensions of the pseudo-sciences that claim that human nature consists of little more than our genes and the instincts we have developed as a result of natural selection.  Menand deconstructs the absurdity of the theories of Steven Pinker and other practitioners of the pseudo-science of evolutionary psychology: theories that would reduce art and culture to the lowest common denominator of mediocrity, where paintings of weeping clowns and red barns are favored due to their expressing some (imagined) advantage in the struggle for survival that our ancestors on the African savanna faced. 
Menand also brings to the fore the political and social implications of Pinker’s brand of reductionism.  He writes,
The other trouble with evolutionary psychology is that it is not really psychology. In general, the views that Pinker derives from “the new sciences of human nature” are mainstream Clinton-era views: incarceration is regrettable but necessary; sexism is unacceptable, but men and women will always have different attitudes toward sex; dialogue is preferable to threats of force in defusing ethnic and nationalist conflicts; most group stereotypes are roughly correct, but we should never judge an individual by group stereotypes; rectitude is all very well, but “noble guys tend to finish last”; and so on. People who share these beliefs probably didn't need science to arrive at them, but the science is undoubtedly reassuring.
It is in Menand's discussion of realism vs. modernism in art that we have to point to an area of disagreement. Pinker who is profoundly anti-modernist, claims that the modernist sensibility was invented out of whole cloth and goes against the instincts of the average person who is much more comfortable with realism because realism most closely expresses the instinctual responses we have developed over the millennia through the mechanism of natural selection. Menand has no trouble puncturing Pinker's defense of middlebrow mediocrity, while exposing Pinker's complete ignorance of the history and culture of modernism.  (As Pinker has contempt for the historical and cultural sciences there is no particular reason to expect anything but ignorance from him in this area.) But Menand makes a misstep when he responds to Pinker's stupid characterization of Marxism as a source of

  "the new philosophy of modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism,” which, Pinker says, is “more Marxist and far more paranoid."


But in correcting Pinker's cartoonish labelling of Marxism he writes, 
"The preferred mode of orthodox Marxism was not modernism; it was realism." 
That may have been true of Marxists such as G.V. Plekhanov who had a wooden ear for the modernist sensibility and whose reaction to the emergence of Cubism at the dawn of the 20th century was to call it "Nonsense cubed", but it was not true of many other Marxists and artists who were inspired by Marx.  In contrast to Plekhanov, whose pronouncements are well-known, the Marxist art critic Max Raphael approached modernist art with a fine sensibility and a Marxist analysis far more sophisticated than Plekhanov's.  But Max Raphael was little known and shunned by the international Stalinist cultural apparatus, which claimed to adjudicate art in the name of Marxism.  There were also vigorous debates among Marxists between defenders of realism and defenders of modernism, of which an exchange between György Lukács and Ernst Bloch is particularly notable.  This is a very complicated topic that I can only mention. For Pinker all such nuances are beside the point because he simply identifies Marxism with its Stalinist caricature. Pinker’s method, in his book The Blank Slate, is to set up various straw men that he then tears down.  One of Pinker’s favorite straw men are “Marxists” who he claims deny the biological basis of human nature and therefore see it as a “blank slate” on which anything can be written.  While Menand has no problem in general in deconstructing Pinker’s tortured logic, his correction of Pinker's distortion of Marxism unfortunately leaves standing another caricature of Marxism. 

But despite this one problematic area in his essay, Menand's piece is a tour de force in the tradition of anti-reductionism. And anti-reeductionism has been one of the pillars of a dialectical philosophy of nature.  It was expressed by Engels in a prophetic remark in his Dialectics of Nature where he wrote, 
"One day we shall certainly “reduce” thought experimentally to molecular and chemical motions in the brain; but does that exhaust the essence of thought?

Recent years have witnessed a small but growing reaction to the type of mechanical reductionism that has dominated discourse not only among scientists and philosophers, but in popular culture as well. Not a week goes by when the Science Times fails to publish an article on the theme that human psychology and culture are nothing more than responses to neural transmitters that scientists are "working out".  The opposition to this manufactured consensus was expressed in a recent book by a prominent contemporary philosopher, Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. The book got some attention and was even discussed in a New York Times Op Ed piece. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/22/science/beyond-energy-matter-time-and-space.html?_r=0 ) Other books and essays, some of uneven quality, have joined the discussion. Mention might be made of What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini (2010) and The Science Delusion by Curtis White (2014). And of course there are the classic statements against reductionism written against what Menand dubbed "the old science of human nature" by Stephen Jay Gould, and the dialectical biologists Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins. Menand’s essay is an important and elegant contribution to this body of literature.

Friday, November 7, 2014

97th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution

On this, the 97th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, we are reprinting a talk given by James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, after returning from a  visit to the Soviet Union in 1923. Cannon was then a leading member of the Workers Party, which would go on to form the Communist Party of the United States.   The piece below is reprinted courtesy of the Marxist Internet Archives. (https://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1923/communism.htm)


Cannon passport photo, 1922


Soldiers marching, 1917

The Fifth Year of 

The Russian Revolution

By James P. Cannon


cannonDelivered: 1923: After returning to the US in early 1923 from a lengthy stay in Russia, Cannon went on a five-month speaking tour across the country. His lecture was published by the Workers Party as a pamphlet in the same year. The actual document is in the public domain.
Source: Fighting for Socialism in the “American Century” © Resistance Books 2001 © Resistance Books 2001 ISBN 1876646217; Published by Resistance Books 23 Abercrombie St, Chippendale NSW 2008, Permission for on-line publication provided by Resistance Books for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2003.
Transcription\HTML Markup: David Walters

The Early Years of American Communism
Russia through the shadows
The story of Soviet Russia for the first four years after the revolution was a story of desperate struggle against tremendous odds. The fight of the Russian workers did not end with their victory over the bourgeoisie within Russia. The capitalist class of the entire world came to the aid of Russian capitalism.
The workers’ republic was blockaded and shut off from the world. Counterrevolutionary plots and uprisings inside of Russia were financed and directed from the outside. Mercenary invading armies, backed by world capital, attacked Soviet Russia on all sides. On top of all this came the terrible famine which threatened to deal the final blow.
In those four years Soviet Russia indeed went “through the shadows”. But now, after five years of the revolution, we can tell a brighter story. In 1922 Soviet Russia began to emerge from the shadows and started on the upward track. The long and devastating civil war was at an end and the counterrevolution stamped out. The great famine was conquered. The last of the invading foreign armies—except the Japanese in the Far East—had been driven from Russian soil; and the workers’ government, freed from the terrible strain and necessity of war, was enabled, for the first time, to turn its efforts and energies to the great constructive task of building a new Russia on the ruins of the old.
While I was yet in Russia the Red Army drove the Japanese out of Vladivostok and set up the soviets again. And before the Fourth Congress of the Communist International was ended, we had the joy of hearing Comrade Lenin say that all the territory of Russia was at last living in peace under the red flag of the soviets.
I reached Moscow on the first day of June. Signs of recuperation from the long travail were already noticeable. The streets and sidewalks were being repaired and buildings were being painted; for the first time in five years, they told me. During the war all resources and all energies went for bitter necessity; everything else had to wait. Even the buildings in the Kremlin got their first coat of paint this year.
I was riding on a Moscow streetcar one day soon after my arrival, with a comrade who had once been in America and who now holds a responsible position in the Soviet government. I spoke of the good appearance and condition of the car; it had just been newly painted, and looked very pretty. They know more about blending colours than we do; and they care more about it, too. He told me that the Moscow streetcar system had been greatly improved during the past year. The number of cars in operation had been greatly increased, the trackage extended and a fairly reliable schedule maintained. The Moscow streetcar workers were very proud of their achievement; especially so because the improvement in the service had brought with it a corresponding improvement in their own living conditions.
The famous Genoa Conference was still alive at that time, the conference which Lloyd George called to settle the problems of Europe, but which didn’t succeed in settling anything except the career of Lloyd George. France and Belgium, you will remember, were demanding that the property in Russia which had been confiscated by the revolution should be restored to the original foreign owners. Russia had not yet given her final answer, and I asked my friend in the streetcar what he thought it would be.
He said, “Most of the big industrial plants in Russia, and even a part of the railroad system, belonged to foreign capitalists before the revolution. Russia was practically a colony of European capitalism.”
“Do you know”, he asked me, “who used to own the streetcar system in Moscow—it belonged to the poor Belgian capitalists, and they are trying to get it back at Genoa.”
I asked him what chance the poor Belgian capitalists had to get their streetcars back. He answered, “No chance at all”.
He told me as soon as that demand became known the Moscow streetcar workers—as well as the workers in the other important industries—called meetings and passed resolutions to this effect: “The foreign capitalists tried for four years to take these industries away from us by armed force, and they couldn’t succeed. Now we are certainly not going to let them talk us out of them at the diplomatic table.”
Before I went to Russia I had read much about the impending collapse of the Soviet government. A story of this kind used to appear on an average of about once a week in the New York Times and other capitalist newspapers; and no doubt you have all read them. Here lately the capitalist press has dropped that story and the Socialist Party and the IWW papers have taken it up. I spent seven months in Russia, and I assure you that I looked diligently for the signs of this famous “collapse”, but I couldn’t find it. On the contrary, the more I investigated, the more I saw of the attitude of the Russian workers, the more I became convinced that the Soviet government under the control of the Communist Party is firmer and stronger now than at any period in its history.
I saw the power of the Russian Communist Party tested by an historic conflict with another party which challenged its control. The occasion was the trial of the leaders of the so-called Social Revolutionary Party.
These Social Revolutionaries were brought to trial before the proletarian court and when I was in Moscow, I was present, with an interpreter, on the day it opened in the Labour Temple, and at many of the other sessions. It was a fair trial—nothing like it ever occurred in America. The defendants were allowed to talk as freely and as much as they pleased. There was no restriction whatever on their liberty to speak in their own defence. The trouble with them was that they had no defence. The Soviet government had the goods on them. A number of the prisoners had repented of their crimes against the revolution, and they testified for the Soviet government.
The case was clear. These leaders of the SR Party, defeated in the political struggle with the Communist Party, resorted to a campaign of terror and assassination. They murdered Uritsky and Volodarsky. They dynamited the building which housed the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party and killed 14 people. They had Trotsky and Zinoviev marked for assassination. It was an SR bullet that brought Lenin down and from which he still suffers today.
They went even further than that. They went to the point that all the opponents of the Soviet system go in the end. They collaborated with the White Guards and they took money from the French government to do its dirty work in Russia. All this was clearly proven in the trial; most of it out of the mouths of men who had taken active part in the campaign.
While the trial was in progress occurred the anniversary of the assassination of Volodarsky, one of the most beloved leaders of the revolution, who had been shot down by the SRs; and the Communist Party called upon the workers to honour his memory by a demonstration for the Soviet government and against the SR Party. The communist speakers went to the factories and requested that no worker march except of his own free will.
I stood in Red Square and watched that demonstration. Practically the whole working-class population of Moscow marched that day, carrying banners which proclaimed their solidarity with the Soviet government and the Communist Party, and demanding the death penalty for the leaders of the counterrevolutionary, White Guard SR Party.
I was standing in the reviewing stand with the members of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. It was five o’clock in the evening. The demonstration had commenced at noon and the workers of Moscow were still marching in wide streams from all directions through Red Square. One of the leaders of the Russian Communist Party turned to us and said, “Comrades, this is the funeral of the counterrevolution in Russia”.
So it was. The counterrevolution in Russia is as dead as the King of Egypt. The only places there is any life left in it are Paris, London and the East Side of New York.
Economic reconstruction
Politically, the Soviet regime, under the leadership of the Communist Party, greatly strengthened itself in the past year. And economic progress went hand in hand with political improvement. Much of this economic progress, and its reflection in the field of politics, was due to the timely introduction of the New Economic Policy, or, as they say in Russia, the “NEP”.
Early in 1921 it became evident that some of the drastic economic measures taken by the Soviet government, under the pressure of political and military necessity, could not be adhered to. The backward social and industrial development of Russia, together with the failure of the European proletariat to succeed in making a revolution, compelled the Soviet government to make a retreat on the economic field.
The Soviet government had been forced to adopt many of these extreme economic measures by political and military necessity. But Lenin did not hesitate to say that they had been going too fast. The economic development of Russia did not permit the direct transition to a system of pure socialist economy.
When this frank and obvious statement was made by Lenin, the yellow socialists of the Second International, as well as some so-called “Marxians” of this country who have been against the Russian Revolution because it wasn’t made according to their blueprint, find much satisfaction. They say: “Ha! Ha! We told you so. The Bolshevik Revolution was a mistake!” Their conclusions are that the workers of Russia should give up the political power and go back to capitalism.
But the Russian Bolsheviks are practical people. They have made the revolution once and they don’t intend to go back and do it over again. They say: “No, the revolution was not a mistake, and we will not go back to capitalism. We will make a retreat on the economic field, but we will keep the political power in the hands of the proletariat and use that as a lever to develop our industry to the point where it can serve as a base for a system of socialist economy. And if we can’t find anything in the books to support this procedure, we’ll write a book of our own.”
There are people who say that Russia has gone back to capitalism, but that is not true. In Russia they say, “It is neither capitalism nor communism, it is 'NEP’!” Trotsky described the present situation in Russia as follows:
“The workers control the government. The workers’ government has control of industry and is carrying on this industry according to the methods of the capitalist market, of capitalist calculation.” I think that is the best concise definition of the NEP.
The state controls commerce and has a monopoly of foreign trade. The state owns all the land, and from the peasants who cultivate the land it collects a tax in kind of approximately 10% of the crop. Free trade is permitted. The peasants may sell or exchange their surplus products after the tax has been paid.
Private enterprises exist alongside of state enterprises. The workers in both state and private enterprises are paid wages in money and the medium of calculation and exchange is money. That is the NEP.
The New Economic Policy was first introduced in the spring of 1921; but it was not until 1922 that the effects of it began to be felt on a wide scale. During the period that I was in Russia the positive and beneficial results of the NEP could be seen in all fields.
The paper money of Soviet Russia, like that of all countries ruined by the war, was greatly inflated. But in 1922 it was stabilised for a period of six months as against three months in 1921. The peasants were able in 1922 to overcome the famine and they voluntarily brought their tax in kind to the government elevators and warehouses. Only in the most exceptional and isolated cases was it necessary to use force to collect the tax.
Before the revolution the Russian peasant had the landlord on his back. Today the landlord system is done away with; there is not one landlord left in the whole of Russia. All that the peasant produces, above his tax in kind of approximately 10%, is his own, to do with as he sees fit. The result is a very friendly attitude toward the Soviet government.
1922 marked the beginning of a general revival in trade and industry. The revolution inherited from the old regime an industrial system that was poorly developed, inefficiently managed and badly demoralised by the strain of the imperialist war. The long civil war, the interventions and the blockade dealt still heavier blows to Russian industry and almost brought it to complete ruin.
To try to do anything with it seemed a hopeless task. Agents of other governments, industrial experts, went to Russia, investigated her industries and reported that they couldn’t be revived without assistance from the outside. It was reports of this kind that bolstered up the hope of European and American capitalists and their political agents that the Soviet government was certain to fall.
These gentlemen reckoned without the Russian working class and the Communist Party that leads and inspires it.
In the revolution and the war which followed it for more than four years, the Communist Party dared the “impossible”—and accomplished it. The same courage and determination characterise its attack on the problem of industry. Seval Zimmand told me a story of a meeting which he had an opportunity to attend in the Ural industrial district. It was a conference of engineers, factory managers and trade union leaders presided over by Bogdanov, the commissar of the Supreme Council of Public Economy. After discussing all features of the situation with the engineers and managers and hearing their reports, Bogdanov said, “I know that it is hard to improve the industries in the Ural. But the industries of the Ural can be improved and the industries of the Ural must be improved.”
There, in one word, is a definition of the Communist Party of Russia—the party of MUST! While others say, “It is impossible”, and, “We had better wait”, or, “It can’t be done”, the Communist Party says, “It must be done!”—and the Communists go ahead and do it.
Russian industry, on the whole, in 1922 registered a general increase of production of more than 100%. This brought the standard of production up to 25% of the prewar condition. This condition is bad enough, but the Russian workers lived through a worse one, and they have begun to make headway.
Russian exports in 1922 were six times greater than the year before. In 1921 the exports were only 5% of the imports. Last year they were brought up to 25%. All the light industries, that is, those which produce for the market, improved remarkably last year and are now in pretty fair shape. The heavy industries, that is, the coal, iron, steel and oil industries, whose product goes mainly to the other state industries—only about 10% of it being sold in the market—recover more slowly. Here the problem is a colossal one. For a long time after the revolution, all these basic industries were in the hands of counterrevolutionary armies. The iron region in the Urals, the coal, iron and steel in the Donets Basin—the Pennsylvania of Russia—and the oil fields around Baku, were all held by hostile armies. When the Red Army recaptured these territories, the industries were in ruins.
The Soviet government bent itself to this task and in 1922 made substantial headway. Coal production was increased 25% over 1921, naphtha 20%, cast iron 42%, while iron and steel production in 1922 doubled that of the year before. In 1913, before the imperialist war began, the Russian railroads loaded 30,000 cars a day. In 1918, at the low tide of the revolution, when the blockade was still in effect and hostile armies surrounded Russia with a ring of steel, the number of railroad cars loaded daily dropped to 7590. By 1921 this figure was brought up to 9500. In 1922 the improvement was continued and 11,500 cars were loaded; this is more than one-third of the prewar volume.
Russia’s great problem today is the problem of heavy industry. The leaders of the Russian Revolution recognise this and are concentrating all their energies on that task.
The Soviet government is saving on everything in order to help the heavy industry. All state appropriations, even those for schools, are being reduced for this purpose. When some sentimental people complained that the reduction of school appropriations was a backward step, Lenin answered that the chance for Russia to become a really civilised and cultured nation depended on the improvement of the heavy industry. That is the foundation.
The Soviet government last year made a profit of 20 million gold rubles on its trading activities. That is the equivalent of ten million dollars, and the whole of it was given by the government as a subsidy to heavy industry. Likewise a considerable portion of the tax collected from the peasants and from the Nepmen engaged in commerce goes for that purpose.
One way of attracting outside capital, which has attained some degree of success, is through the formation of so-called mixed companies. The Soviet government goes into partnership with private capitalists in commercial enterprises, such as putting up part of the capital and sharing in the management and the profits. Lenin told us that by this means a large number of workers are enabled to learn from the capitalists how to carry on commerce; and the Soviet government retains the right to dissolve the companies later.
The wages of the Russian workers kept pace with the improvement of production, increasing in just about the same proportion. Wages are not yet up to the prewar standard. The Russian shoe workers today get 33.3% of prewar wages. The metal workers get 42.9%, the textile workers 42.1%and the wood workers 57.9%. Wages vary according to the conditions of the various industries. The foodstuff industry is pretty well on its feet and the bakery workers get 81.9% of prewar wages, while the tobacco industry pays 13.1%. These figures do not tell the whole story. Because the workers, under the Soviet government, get many special privileges such as cheap rent, food at cost, etc.
The Russian worker, after five years of the revolution, is not as well off materially today as he was under the tsar. But his condition is now steadily improving and the political and spiritual gains of the revolution are beyond calculation. There is no sentiment among the workers for a return to the old regime. To those who measure everything in terms of concrete, immediate material gains, and who ask the Russian workers what they have to show for their five years of revolution, they answer: “The revolution is not over yet.”
Trotsky pointed out at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International that the French standard of living, 10 years after the great revolution which smashed the feudal system and opened the way for the development of the capitalist mode of production, was far below that which prevailed immediately before the revolution. Revolutions destroy before they can build anew, and in this destruction the people suffer. But the destructive phase of the Russian Revolution is already past and in five more years, at the present rate of progress, there is no doubt that the material conditions of the Russian workers, as well as their spiritual, intellectual and political conditions, will be far better than ever before.
Since private industrial and commercial enterprises exist alongside of state enterprises, the question naturally arises—and it certainly is a most important question—what is the relative strength of the two? This question is answered by the figures on the number employed by each. The state controls all means of transport, including the railroads, and in this transportation industry 1,000,000 are employed. The state trusts—these are corporations organised by the state for the commercial and financial management of the various industries under its control—employ 1,300,000. And in non-trust state enterprises another half million workers. This brings the total of state employees up to 2,800,000. Private enterprises employ only 70,000.
There is little danger in this ratio. The danger is still lessened by the fact that the state holds all the big and important industries which are the bases of power while private capital is confined to smaller factories and to commerce. The average number of workers employed in state enterprises is 250 while private plants have an average of only 18.
Trade unionism in Russia
Practically all the workers employed in both state and private undertakings are organised into the Russian trade unions. These trade unions are organised according to the industrial form; there is but one union for each industry. The membership of the Russian trade unions is three million. Before the revolution the total membership of all the trade unions of Russia was only 1,385,000.
The trade unions have played a great part in the revolution. During the period of “war communism” they were closely united to the apparatus and took upon themselves a number of government responsibilities. But under the New Economic Policy they have completely separated from the state machinery and have reorganised as independent bodies, having for their main functions the defence of the interests of the workers in the factories.
Strikes were never prohibited by law under the Soviet government, but during the period of the civil war the Trade Union Congress voluntarily decided to forego that method of struggle. Under the New Economic Policy, however, the right to strike has been reaffirmed. Strikes are discouraged and do not occur very often. Boards of conciliation, courts of arbitration and mutual agreements are first resorted to, and as a rule all controversies are settled by these means.
I never saw a strike in Soviet Russia and never heard of one taking place while I was there. But Comrade Melnichansky, the head of the Moscow trade unions, told me of a few that had occurred under his jurisdiction. In those cases all the methods and forms of industrial warfare familiar to European and American labour movements automatically developed, such as strike committees, pickets, strike benefits, etc. There had been rare cases, he told me, when unscrupulous employers had tried to operate the struck plant by means of ignorant peasants recruited from the villages. The government gave no favour to this “freedom of contract” so popular with our own government. And a visit from the pickets usually sufficed to convince the strikebreakers that they had better go back where they came from. I asked Comrade Melnichansky if they had encountered any strike injunctions. He laughed and answered, “My dear comrade, you must understand that this is not America!”
I attended the Fifth All-Russian Trade Union Congress. It is analogous to the national convention of the American Federation of Labor, but it was quite a different looking delegation from the sleek, fat, overdressed “men of labour” who meet once a year under the chairmanship of Gompers. There were more than a thousand delegates present at this congress, and I saw only one man who appeared to be overweight.
The congress was held in the Moscow Labour Temple which, in the old days, was the Nobles Club. It is a gorgeous place, with marble pillars, crystal chandeliers and gold leaf decorations. One could imagine that the “Nobles” had many a good time there in the “good old days”. But, in the words of the comic strip artist, “Them days is over”. The workers are the ruling class today and they have taken all the best places for their own purposes.
I saw something at that congress that never yet happened in America. Zinoviev and Rykov came to the congress to make a report on behalf of the government. I thought how natural it was, in a country ruled by the workers, for the government to report to the trade unions. It is just as natural as it is in America for the government to report to the Chamber of Commerce. The same principle applies. Governments have the habit of reporting to those whom they really represent. The old proverb says, “Tell me whose bread you eat and I’ll tell you whose song you sing”.
The Soviet government is a labour government and it makes no secret of the fact that it is partial to the working class. It doesn’t pretend to be fair or neutral. They frankly call the government a dictatorship. “It’s just like your own government in America”, they told me, “only it is a dictatorship of a different class.”
“Otherwise the two governments are much alike”, they said, “they are both dictatorships. But there is another difference. The Russian government says it is a dictatorship and makes no camouflage about it. The government of the United States pretends to be fair and democratic, to represent both the workers and the capitalists, but whenever you have a big strike the government soon shows whom it belongs to.”
Ninety-eight percent of all the delegates to this Fifth All-Russian Trade Union Congress were members of the Communist party. Those figures constitute another answer to the question: “How does the Communist Party keep in power.” When more than a thousand trade union delegates come together from all parts of Russia, and more than 98% of them are Communists, it is a pretty reliable indication, I think, that the Communist Party has its roots very deep in the basic organisations of the workers.
Referring to the fact that wages of the Russian workers had been increased 100% during the past year, keeping even pace with the increased production, Zinoviev laid before the congress the program of the Communist Party on the question of wages and production. He said the two must go forward together, hand in hand.
“Every country in the world”, he said, “outside of Russia has built up its industrial system at the price of an impoverished and exploited working class. The capitalist countries have built a marvellous industrial system; they have erected great structures of steel and stone and cement; they have piled up wealth that staggers calculation. And alongside of all this they have a hungry and impoverished working class which made it all. For all their toil and accomplishments the workers have reaped a harvest of poverty and misery.” “Russia”, he said, “must not go that way. We are a working-class nation and we must not forget that the interest of the workers must be our first concern, always. We will strain all energies to increase production, but here at the beginning let us lay down an iron rule for our future guidance: that every improvement in industry must bring a corresponding improvement in the living standards of the workers in the industry. We want to build a big industry and we want to build it quickly. But we also want to build a bigger and better human race.”
The workers and the Red Army
Between the trade unions and the Red Army there is a close and fraternal unity that does not prevail between the labour movement and the army of any other country in Europe. The trade unionists regard the Red soldiers as the protectors and defenders of the labour movement, and they treat them with the highest honour.
There is a reason for this attitude. When some of the industrial districts of Russia fell into the hands of the counterrevolutionary armies, the first thing the White Guards did, after dissolving the soviets, was to break up the trade unions, shooting or jailing the leaders; it was something like West Virginia. And when the Red Army reconquered those territories, the trade unions were immediately reorganised under the protection of its bayonets. This is the reason for the brotherly solidarity between the unions and the army.
It was not surprising, therefore, that the Red Army should send a representative to the Trade Union Congress. General Budenny, the head of the famous Red cavalry, was there and he was given a tumultuous reception. I was thinking of the time a general of our army visited the American trade unionists, the time that General Wood came to Gary.22 For several minutes they applauded and shouted for General Budenny. He was embarrassed and had difficulty getting started. His speech consisted of only one sentence, but it was enough. Drawing himself up to a military posture, he clicked his heels together and saluted the delegates and said, “Comrades, just tell us what you want us to do, and we’ll do it!”
The Red Army is a new factor in the international situation, and a very important one. The diplomats cannot meet today to partition off the Earth without asking, “What will the Red Army do?” The Red soldier is present at all the councils of the war makers. He puts his fist on the table and says, “I am in on the war game in Europe from now on!”
The Red Army is something new under the sun, a proletarian army, made up exclusively of workers and peasants, with most of its officers drawn from the working class. It proved its mettle in the long and successful struggle against the interventionist armies. It has a morale, spirit and discipline unknown to the military history of Europe. There is not an army on the continent of Europe that, man for man, can stand up against it.
When I was in Russia the size of the Red Army had been reduced to 800,000 men. Since I left, it has been still further reduced to 600,000. But that is not its full strength by any means. The standing army of 600,000 is only a skeleton around which five million men, already trained for service, can be quickly organised.
The Red Army is a powerful military machine, but that is not all. It is a school, the greatest school on Earth. The great bulk of its soldiers come from the peasantry, and 80% of the Russian peasants are illiterate. But in the Red Army they are all taught to read and write. Last May Day they celebrated the liquidation of illiteracy in the Red Army. Trotsky made the statement that on that day, there was not a soldier in the army who was not able to read and write. The Russian Bolsheviks have taken an instrument of destruction and utilised it for a great constructive purpose.
I visited some Red Army camps and learned something about the spirit of the soldiers at first hand. I had read something about it and wished to check up on what I had read. I asked Trotsky about it and he said, “Go to the camps and see the soldiers themselves. Then you will understand it.” I asked him why the Red soldier has a different attitude toward the government from that of the other soldiers of Europe, and he answered, “The attitude of the Red soldier toward the Soviet government is determined by the attitude of the Soviet government toward the Red soldier.”
That is the secret of it. That is the reason for the intense loyalty of the Red soldier which the old-school militarists cannot understand. The Red soldier is respected and honoured in time of peace as well as in war. He is not heroised as he marches off to battle and then chased up a back alley when he comes home. He is not given a medal when he is needed and refused a job or a handout when the war is over. In the working class society of Russia the Red soldier has a place of dignity and honour. In Russia the soldiers and the workers are the real “people of importance”.
I saw another phase of the educational work of the army in one of the camps. It was a moving picture show attended by about 2000 soldiers. It was a moving picture of large-scale grain farming in Canada. Most of the soldiers in the audience were peasant lads. They had come from the villages and their idea of agriculture was founded on the primitive, individualistic methods they had always known. Most of them had never seen a farming implement larger than a one-horse plough. Here on the screen before them was flashed a picture of modern farming on a big scale, with tractors, gang-ploughs and great threshing machines; a single working unit covering hundreds of acres at a time.
They drank in that picture very eagerly. As I watched them I saw another picture. I saw those peasant lads going back home when their service in the army would be ended, with their newly acquired knowledge and their vision of the great world outside their little villages, telling their friends and their old folks of the great farming machinery which the city worker will manufacture for the peasants and which will be the means of developing large-scale communal farming instead of small-scale individual farming, and which will transform the individualist peasant of today into the communist peasant of tomorrow.
I found the Red soldiers pretty well informed as to what is going on in the world. They spoke of the prospects of revolution in Germany with the air of men who had read and talked much about it. That is part of their education; Trotsky keeps them fully informed about international developments, and there are special communist detachments in all regiments who carry on a constant propaganda for internationalism.
Capitalist journalists write a great deal about the intense national patriotism of the Red Army. These stories are usually written by journalists who sit around in Moscow hotels and cook up stories about it, and, as a rule, they are very far from the truth. As a matter of fact, the main effort of communist propaganda in the army is to overcome tendencies toward Russian national patriotism and to develop a patriotism to the international proletariat. Since the army quit singing God Save the Tsar it has had no national official hymn. The official air played in the Red Army is the Internationale. Internationalism is the watchword.
This was impressed upon us very vividly by a speech we heard at the graduation exercises of the school of Red Cavalry commanders at Moscow. A number of international delegates attended those exercises and spent the entire day with the young students who were just finishing their studies. For several hours we watched them perform hair-raising feats on horseback and late in the afternoon we had dinner with them in the mess hall. After dinner the delegates from the various countries each spoke a few words of greeting to the graduates and then they put up one of the graduates to respond. He was lifted upon the table from which we had just eaten our dinner, a young communist lad who only a short time before had been taken from the factory, put through an intensive course of instruction and on that day was being turned out as a Red commander.
“Comrades”, he said, “we greet you as comrades and brothers in the same army with us. We do not want you to think of us as soldiers of Russia, but as soldiers of the international proletariat. Our army is a working-class army and the working class of the world is our country. We will be very glad when the workers of Europe rise in revolt and call on us for assistance; and when that day comes they will find us ready.”
The workers and internationalism
It is not only the Red soldiers in Russia who are internationalists. Internationalism permeates the entire working class. When the Russian workers rose in revolt five years ago and struck the blow that destroyed Russian capitalism they were confident that the workers throughout Europe would follow their example. They have been waiting five years for the international revolution and they still believe it is coming. Nothing has been able to shake that faith. They believe in the workers of Europe as they believe in the sun.
Ah, the faith of those Russian workers! It is so strong that it communicates itself to others. All of us who saw and felt it came away with our own faith surer and stronger. One afternoon I heard a band playing in the street outside the hotel where I was living. I looked out the window and saw a big parade marching with banners flying. I took a Russian comrade with me and we followed the parade. It wound up at the Labour Temple with a mass meeting. There were enthusiastic speeches, the band played the Internationale and the crowd sang it. It was a demonstration of the bakery workers of Moscow with the bakers of Bulgaria who were out on a general strike. And those bakery workers of Moscow, from their meagre wages, raised a fund to send to their comrades in faraway Bulgaria to cheer them on in the fight.
On the fifth anniversary of the revolution the delegates of the communist parties and Red trade unions were the guests of the proletariat of Petrograd. A great throng of workers met us at the station. We symbolised to them the international labour movement and they gave us a warm and generous welcome. Red Army troops were drawn up before the station, the streets in all directions were packed with workers who had come to greet us, and from every building and post flew banners, proclaiming the fifth anniversary of the Russian Revolution and hailing the international revolution.
That day we saw a demonstration of the workers of Petrograd. I shall never forget it. They had built a special reviewing stand for us before the Uritsky Palace and we stood there and watched them march by in detachments according to the factories where they worked. They carried the same old banners which they had carried five years before, many of them torn by the bullets that flew during the decisive battle.
I never saw before such an outpouring of people, nor such enthusiasm. The parade commenced at 11 o’clock in the morning. Hour after hour we saw them come in wide streams across the square. The afternoon wore away and turned to dusk. It was six o’clock and we grew tired of standing and had to leave, and still the workers of Petrograd were coming by the thousands, carrying their revolutionary banners and singing the Internationale. All the workers of Petrograd marched that day to show their solidarity with the international proletariat and to prove to us that they still believe in the revolution they made five years before.
The next day, as though to show us that the Russian Revolution and the International has not only spirit and solidarity on its side but military power also, they let us see a parade of the Red Army.
It was a cheering and inspiring sight to see the Red soldiers on the march with their rifles over their shoulders and their bayonets shining in the sun. They marched in perfect step, with heads erect, the picture of physical prowess. As they passed the reviewing stand they all shouted, “Long live the Communist International!” and we shouted back, “Long live the Red Army!”
In the reviewing stand that day were delegates of the communist parties of other countries; and beside us sat the diplomats of foreign governments in Russia. It is the custom to invite them whenever there is a parade of the Red Army. They say that when the diplomats see the Red soldiers march, it cools their enthusiasm for another war against Soviet Russia.
Before we left Petrograd we made a pilgrimage to the Field of Mars, where in one great grave are buried the victims of the November Revolution.23 Five years before it was the scene of desperate battle. The air was torn by rifle fire and the cries of those Petrograd workers who had risen in revolt and staked their lives on the issue. On the 7th of November, five years before, the workers of Petrograd fought there the battle of the human race and of the future. Many of them fell, never to rise again.
We stood there, with heads uncovered, in a cold, drizzling rain. The once noisy battlefield was quiet. There was no sound but the soft music of the Funeral Hymn of the Revolution, and the very ground, once spattered with the blood of our heroic dead, was banked high with flowers, placed there in gratitude and love by the delegates of the communist parties and red trade unions of all lands.
Those Petrograd workers put their lives in the scale. They had lived lives of misery and oppression, but they were possessed by a daring vision of the future when the lives of all men will be better and fairer. They were the heralds of a new day in the world when there will be no more masters and no more slaves, and they gave their lives to hasten on that day.
There is an end now to their labour, their struggle and their sacrifice. They rest beneath the Field of Mars and their mouths are stopped with dust. But still from the grave they speak, and their voices are heard all over the world. They lighted an everlasting fire in the sky which the whole world is destined to see and follow.
Those Petrograd workers struck the blow which shattered the capitalist regime in Russia and put the working class in power. But they did more than that, because the Russian Revolution did not stop in Russia. It found its way over the borders. It broke through the blockade and spread all over the Earth. The Russian Revolution was the beginning of the international revolution.
Wherever there is a group of militant workers anywhere in the world, there is the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution is in the heart of every rebel worker the world over. The Russian Revolution is in this room.
Comrade Trotsky told us, just before we left Moscow, that the best way we can help Soviet Russia is to build a bigger trade union movement and a stronger party of our own. Recognition by other governments will be of some temporary value, but the real recognition Soviet Russia wants is the recognition of the working class. When she gets that she will not need the recognition of capitalist governments. Then she can refuse to recognise them!
For, after all, Soviet Russia is not a “country”. Soviet Russia is a part of the world labour movement. Soviet Russia is a strike—the greatest strike in all history. When the working class of Europe and America join that strike it will be the end of capitalism.