“Grounds of War” – A New Paper on Territoriality with Remarkable “Similarities” to the Work of Robert Ardrey

Robert Ardrey was a brilliant man.  After a successful career as a playwright, he became an anthropologist, and wrote a series of four books in the 60’s and 70’s refuting the absurd orthodoxy of the Blank Slate that prevailed at the time.  In other words, to the tune of vociferous abuse from the “men of science” in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the rest of the behavioral sciences, he insisted that there actually is such a thing as human nature.  The abuse was an honor Ardrey well deserved, because he proved to be a very potent antidote to the Blank Slate nonsense, perhaps the most remarkable perversion of science of all time.  Indeed, he was the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday.  That fact was nicely documented by the Blank Slaters themselves in an invaluable little collection of essays entitled Man and Aggression.  The book, which appeared in 1968, was edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu, and was aimed mainly at Ardrey, with a few barbs reserved for Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, and with novelist William Golding thrown in for comic effect.  As I write this, used copies are still available at Amazon for just a penny.  In case you happen to be hard up for cash, here’s a quote from the book taken from an essay by psychologist Geoffrey Gorer:

Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.

…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.

Of course, we now live in more enlightened times, and the Blank Slate collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity years ago.  In a word, the life work of Robert Ardrey has been heroically vindicated, no?  Well, not exactly.  You see, the “men of science” could never forgive Ardrey, a mere playwright, for shaming them.  Indeed, Steven Pinker, one of the tribe, went to the trouble of writing a remarkable revision of history entitled, appropriate enough, The Blank Slate, in which he actually performed the feat of completely ignoring Ardrey, other than in a single paragraph in which he claimed, on the authority of Richard Dawkins, that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong!”  It’s like writing that Einstein was “totally and utterly wrong” about relativity because he didn’t think right about quantum theory.  I won’t go into the specious reasons Pinker used to fob off this gross imposture on his readers.  I’ve gone into them in some detail, for example, here and here.  Suffice it to say that Ardrey’s support for the theory of group selection had much to do with it.

Fast forward to 2014.  Two Oxford academics by the names of Monica Duffy Toft and Dominic Johnson have just published a paper in the journal International Security entitled Grounds of War; The Evolution of Territorial Conflict (hattip hbd-chick).  And what is it about that title that brings Ardrey to mind?  Ah, yes, as those familiar with his work will recall, he wrote a book entitled The Territorial Imperative, published back in 1966.  As it happens, the “similarities” don’t end there.  Allow me to point out some of the others that appear in this “original” paper:

Toft & Johnson:  Territorial behavior—or “territoriality”—is prevalent not only among humans, but across the animal kingdom. It has evolved independently across a wide range of taxonomic groups and ecological contexts, whether from the depths of the ocean to rainforest canopies, or from deserts to the Arctic tundra. This recurrence of territoriality suggests evolutionary “convergence” on a tried and tested strategic solution to a common environmental challenge. Organisms have tended to develop territoriality because it is an effective strategy for survival and maximizing “Darwinian fitness” (reproduction).

Ardrey:  Territorial behavior in animals, of the past few decades, has attracted the attention of hundreds of competent specialists who have recorded there observations and their reasoned conclusions in obscure professional publications.  The subject is very nearly as well known to the student of animal behavior as is the relation of mother and infant to the student of human behavior.  Furthermore, many of the concerned scientists, as we shall see, believe as do I that man is a territorial species, and that the behavior so widely observed in animal species is equally characteristic of our own.

Toft & Johnson:  Across the animal kingdom, holders of territory (or “residents”) tend to have a higher probability of winning contests, even against stronger intruders. Territoriality is thus heavily influenced by who was there first.

Ardrey:  We may also say that in all territorial species, without exception, possession of a territory lends enhanced energy to the proprieter.  Students of animal behavior cannot agree as to why this should be, but the challenger is almost invariably defeated, the intruder expelled.

Toft & Johnson:  Territoriality does not necessarily lead to violence. Indeed, biologists regard it as a mechanism that evolved to avoid violence.  By partitioning living space according to established behavioral conventions, animals can avoid the costs associated with constant fighting. Furthermore, although discussions of territorial behavior tend to focus on aggression, territorial behavior has two distinct components: attack and avoidance. Residents tend to attack in defense of their territory (fight), intruders tend to withdraw (flight).

Ardrey:  The territories of howler (monkey) clans are large, the borders vague.  But clans have only to sight each other in this no man’s land and total warfare breaks out.  Rage shakes the forest.  That rage, however, takes none but vocal expression… Should intrusion occur, these voices joined will be the artillery of battle.  And strictly in accord with the territorial principle, the home team will always win, the visiting team will always withdraw.

I could multiply such “similarities” into the dozens.  Far be it for me, however, to charge the two authors with anything so crude as plagiarism.  Indeed, Toft and Johnson actually do take care to cite Ardrey.  Here’s what they have to say about him:

The idea that evolution helps to explain human territorial behavior is not new. Robert Ardrey’s popular book The Territorial Imperative, published in the 1960s, championed the role of territorial instincts in human conflict. This account, however, suffers from some now outdated views of evolution, for example, the idea that behaviors are “hard-wired,” or that they evolved because they helped the group or the species as a whole.

Here we find Toft and Johnson squawking to order like two Pinkeresque parrots.  One must charitably assume that neither of them has ever actually read Ardrey, because otherwise one cannot construe this bit as other than a mendacious lie.  This is what the two have to say about what they mean by the term “hard-wired”:

As with many other human traits, territoriality might be loosely considered not as “hard-wired” but as “soft-wired”—a component of human nature but one that is responsive to prevailing conditions. Power, rational choice, domestic politics, institutions, and culture are of course important as well in explaining territorial conflict, but evolutionary biology can provide additional explanatory power.

I’m not sure if Ardrey ever even used the term “hard-wired,” but if he did it certainly wasn’t in the sense that Toft and Johnson use it.  He constantly and repeatedly insisted on the “soft-wired” nature of human behavioral predispositions.  For example, from The Territorial Imperative:

The open instinct, a combination in varying portion of genetic design and relevant experience, is the common sort in all higher animal forms.  As beginning with the digger wasp we proceed higher and higher in the animal orders, the closed instinct all but vanishes, the open instinct incorporates more and more a learned portion.  In man it reaches a maximum of learning, a minimum of design.

There are many similar passages in Ardrey’s work.  Turning to the next charge, I know of nothing therein that suggests that he ever believed that selection actually took place at the species level.  He did occasionally point out the obvious truth that various behavioral traits tend to benefit a species as a whole rather than harm it, but the claim that this amounts to support for species-level selection is nonsense.  Readers can check this for themselves by reading, for example, the last page of Chapter 3, section 2 of The Territorial Imperative.  Ardrey did support theories of group selection.  So did Darwin.  So did E. O. Wilson in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  Does that fact also disqualify those two from any claim to their own ideas?  What’s next?  Will Toft and Johnson come up with an “original” theory of evolution by natural selection.  Perhaps they could even write a book about it.  Allow me to suggest the title On the Origin of Species.  They could follow that with their own versions of Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature.

The saddest thing about it all is that Toft and Johnson are likely to get away with this revision of history a la Dawkins and Pinker.  After all, the academics and other “men of science” hate Ardrey.  How dare he be right when almost all of them were embracing the mirage of the Blank Slate!  How dare a mere playwright do such a thing?

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey

Antediluvian Feminism

While catching up on my back issues of The Monthly Magazine, I ran across an interesting letter to the editor by one “P. W.” in the April 1801 issue.  (It’s on page 220 in case you happen to have a copy lying around the house.)  Many women probably had the same idea long before him, but it’s the earliest piece by a man I’ve ever run across proposing equal pay for equal work.  Some excerpts:

Sir, the propriety of giving women the same pay as men, for acting with equal success in the same station, has long been so forcibly impressed upon my mind, that I cannot resist my inclination to give you the reasons for the opinion I have formed on the subject…

First, it is obvious that the absurdity of custom can never overthrow or diminish the authority of the immutable law of justice, which directs that women should receive equal rewards with men, for the same services equally performed.

Second, the sound policy of calling out the abilities of every member of the community, for the benefit of the whole, by the stimulus of an adequate reward, is a principle that should be extended to both sexes; a change that would improve the female character, and convert her present insignificancy into usefulness.  The stage, the fine arts, and literary composition are the principle departments in which an equality of honour and profits are to be obtained by the competitors of either sex…

Third, humanity unites with policy, in enforcing the advantage of providing resources for women of all ranks, whereby the may gain an honourable support, when deprived of the customary protection of male relatives…

The interests of morality the abolition of the absurd and unjust depreciation of female talent, as it certainly operates as a check to the exertions of women, and tends to multiply the herd of those unhappy frail-ones, who fall a prey to seduction; and who, in their turn, become seducers, and inveigle our sons, our fathers, and our husbands, into the paths of destruction.

It took a while, but the shade of P. W. must have smiled when President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law in 1963.

As those who click on the link above will see, The Monthly Magazine was published in London from 1796 to 1843.  Among other things, it published the earliest fiction of Charles Dickens.

Equal Pay

 

The Legacy of Leon Trotsky: How far “Left” was the “Left Opposition”?

Trotsky was a lot like Blaise Pascal.  Both were religious zealots, the former of a secular and the latter of a more traditional spiritual religion, and yet both left behind work that was both original and interesting as long as it wasn’t too closely associated with the dogmas of their respective faiths.  In Trotsky’s case, this manifested itself in some interesting intellectual artifacts that one finds scattered here and there among his books and essays.  Some of these document interesting shifts in the shibboleths that have defined “progressive” ideology over the years.  As a result, by the standards of today, one occasionally finds Trotsky on the right rather than the left of the ideological spectrum.

For example, when it comes to media of exchange, he sometimes seems to be channeling Grover Cleveland rather than William Jennings Bryan:

The raising of the productivity of labor and bettering of the quality of its products is quite unattainable without an accurate measure freely penetrating into all the cells of industry – that is, without a stable unit of currency.  Hence it is clear that in the transitional (to true socialism, ed.) economy, as also under capitalism, the sole authentic money is that based upon gold.

In the matter of gun control, Trotsky occupied a position to the “right” of Mitch McConnell:

The struggle against foreign danger necessitates, of course, in the workers’ state as in others, a specialized military technical organization, but in no case a privileged officer caste.  The party program demands a replacement of the standing army by an armed people.

The regime of proletarian dictatorship from its very beginning this ceases to be a “state” in the old sense of the word – a special apparatus, that is, for holding in subjection the majority of the people.  The material power, together with the weapons, goes over directly and immediately into the hands of the workers organizations such as the soviets.  The state as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship.  Such is the voice of the party program – not voided to this day.  Strange:  it sounds like a spectral voice from the mausoleum.

However you may interpret the nature of the present Soviet state, one thing is indubitable:  at the end of its second decade of existence, it has not only not died away, but not begun to “die away.”  Worse than that, it has grown into a hitherto unheard of apparatus of compulsion.  The bureaucracy not only has not disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses.  The army not only has not been replaced by an armed people, but has given birth to a privileged officers’ caste, crowned with marshals, while the people, “the armed bearers of the dictatorship,” are now forbidden in the Soviet Union to carry even nonexplosive weapons.

Finally, Trotsky wasn’t “sophisticated” enough to buy into the Blank Slate.  For example,

Competition, whose roots lie in our biological inheritance, having purged itself of greed, envy and privilege, will indubitably remain the most important motive force of culture under communism too.

His bête noire, Stalin, used to refer to him as “traitor Trotsky” because he was the leader of the “left opposition.”  Times change, and so do ideological dogmas.  Today he would probably be more likely to find himself among the “right opportunists.”

trotsky

Napoleon Chagnon and Robert Ardrey

History.  You don’t know the half of it.  Not, at least, unless you have the time and patience to do a little serious digging through the source material on your own.  A good percentage of the so called works of history that have appeared in the last 50 years have been written by journalists.  Typically, these take the form of moral homilies in which the author takes great care to insure the reader can tell the good guys from the bad guys.  They are filled with wooden caricatures, crude simplifications, pious observations, and are almost uniformly worthless.  The roles are periodically reversed.  For example, Coolidge, universally execrated by all right-thinking intellectuals in the 1930’s, has just been stood upright again in a new biographical interpretation by Amity ShlaesCharles Rappleye, one of my personal favorites among the current crop of historians, documents how Robert Morris morphed from good guy to bad guy back to good guy again in the fascinating epilogue to his biography of the great financier of our War of Independence.

Occasionally, major historical figures don’t fit into anyone’s version of the way things were supposed to be.  In that case, they just disappear.  Robert Ardrey is a remarkable instance of this form of collective historical amnesia.  Ardrey was, by far, the most effective opponent of the Blank Slate.   For those unfamiliar with the term, the Blank Slate was an ideologically induced malady that enforced a rigid orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences for several decades.   According to that orthodoxy, there was no such thing as human nature, or, if there was, it was insignificant.  The Blank Slate was bound to seem ridiculous to anyone with an ounce of common sense.  In a series of four books, beginning with African Genesis in 1961 and ending with The Hunting Hypothesis in 1976, Ardrey pointed out exactly why it was ridiculous, and what motivated its adherents to maintain the charade in spite of the fact.  They have been fighting a furious rearguard action ever since.  It has been futile.  Ardrey broke the spell.  The Blank Slate Humpty Dumpty was smashed for good.

Enter Napoleon Chagnon.  The great cultural anthropologist has just published his Noble Savages, in which he recounts his experiences among the Yanomamö of South America.  Over the years, he, too, has fallen afoul of the Blank Slaters for telling the truth instead of adjusting his observations to conform with their ideological never never land.  He, too, has been the victim of their vicious ad hominem attacks.  One would think he would revere Ardrey as a fellow sufferer at the hands of the same pious ideologues.  If so, however, one would think wrong.  Chagnon mentions Ardrey only once, in the context of a discussion of his own early run-ins with the Blank Slaters, as follows:

My field research and analytical approach were part of what anthropologist Robin Fox and sociologist Lionel Tiger referred to as the “zoological perspective” in the social sciences, a reawakening of interest in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature.

For the record, Fox and Tiger were unknowns as far as the “reawakening in man’s evolved nature as distinct from his purely cultural nature” is concerned until they published The Imperial Animal in 1971.  By that time, Ardrey had published all but the last of his books.  Konrad Lorenz had also published his On Aggression in 1966, five years earlier.  The Imperial Animal was an afterthought, published long after the cat was already out of the bag.  At the time it appeared, it impressed me as shallow and lacking the intellectual insight needed to grasp the ideological reasons for the emergence of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Chagnon continues,

I hadn’t fully realized in the late 1960s that the mere suggestion that Homo sapiens had any kind of “nature” except a “cultural nature” caused most cultural anthropologists to bristle.  What Tiger and Fox – and a small but growing number of scientific anthropologists – were interested in was the question of how precisely evolution by natural selection – Darwin’s theory of evolution – affected Homo sapiens socially, behaviorally, and psychologically.

Long-term studies of nonhuman primates and primate social organizations were affecting cultural anthropology.  Many earlier anthropological “truths” were beginning to crumble, such as claims that Homo sapiens alone among animals shared food, made tools, or cooperated with other members of the group who were genetically closely related.  More generally, findings from the field of ethology and animal behavior were beginning to work their way into the literature of anthropology.  Predictably, cultural anthropologists began to resist these trends, often by denigrating the academics who were taking the first steps in that direction or by attempting to discredit the emerging contributions by criticizing the most sensational work, often by nonexperts (for example, Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis).

So much for Robert Ardrey.  His shade should smile.  Chagnon’s rebuke of “sensationalism” is positively benign compared to Steven Pinker’s declaration that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong” in his book, The Blank Slate.  Both charges, however, are equally ridiculous.  Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” was taken on hearsay from Richard Dawkins, who based the charge on, of all things, Ardrey’s kind words about group selection.  The idea that the Blank Slaters attacked Ardrey as an easy target because of his “sensationalism” is also nonsense.  By their own account, they attacked him because he was their most influential and effective opponent, and continued as such from the time he published African Genesis at least until the appearance of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1976.   Why the dismissive attitude?  Call it academic tribalism.  The fact that the “nonexpert” Ardrey had been right, and virtually all the “experts” of his time wrong, has always been a bitter pill for today’s “experts” to swallow.  It is a lasting insult to their amour propre.  They have been casting about trying to prop up one of their own as the “true” dragon slayer of the Blank Slate ever since.  Until recently, the knight of choice has been E. O. Wilson, whose Sociobiology, another afterthought that appeared a good 15 years after African Genesis, was supposedly the “seminal work” of today’s evolutionary psychology.  Alas, to the bitter disappointment of the tribe, Wilson, too, just embraced the group selection heresy that made Ardrey “totally and utterly wrong” in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  No doubt it will now be necessary to find a new “father of evolutionary psychology.”  In my humble opinion, the choice of Tiger and Fox would be in poor taste.  Surely the tribe can do better.

And what of Ardrey?  He was certainly sensational enough.  How could he not be?  After all, a man whose reputation had been gained as a playwright thoroughly debunking all the “experts” in anthropology and the rest of the behavioral sciences was bound to be sensational.  He was a man of many hypotheses.  Anyone trolling through his work today would have no trouble finding other reasons to triumphantly declare him “totally and utterly wrong.”  However, let’s look at the record of the most important of those hypotheses, many of which had been posed by other forgotten men long before Ardrey.

The fact that human nature exists and is important:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

The fact that hunting became important early in human evolution:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

The fact that humans tend to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

Understanding of the ideological origin of the Blank Slate:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

Realization that the behavioral traits we associate with morality are shared with animals:  Ardrey 1, experts 0

The list goes on.  Ardrey set forth these hypotheses in the context of what the Blank Slaters themselves praised as masterful reviews of the relevant work in anthropology and animal ethology at the time.  See for example, the essays by Geoffrey Gorer that appeared in Man and Aggression, a Blank Slater manifesto published in 1968.  And yet, far from being celebrated as a great man who did more than any other to debunk what is arguably one of the most damaging lies ever foisted on mankind, Ardrey is forgotten.  As George Orwell once said, “He who controls the present controls the past.”  The academics control the message, and Ardrey is dead.  They have dropped him down the memory hole.  Such is history.  As I mentioned above, you don’t know the half of it.

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey

The “Socialist Realism” of Victor Serge

I can think of no episode of human history more important to study and understand than the history of Communism.  History is a vast compendium of data on human behavior.  From the history of Communism we can learn how people like us acted, responded, and coped during a time that was historically unprecedented; the rise of the first great secular religion, Marxism.  It’s not a pretty picture.  In its wake, it left 100 million dead and two nations that had decapitated themselves – Russia and Cambodia.  One of its most remarkable features was the fact that the very period at which the misery and suffering it inflicted on its victims reached a climax coincided with the time of its greatest success in gathering converts to the new faith.  It was one of the most convincing demonstrations ever of the fallacy that, even if religions aren’t true, they are “good.”

Victor Serge, a socialist true believer and one-time Bolshevik, left some of the most poignant vignettes of individual human suffering among the many thousands that have been published.  These stories, recorded in his memoirs and other books bring cold statistics to life in the words of a man who was one of the victims, yet remained a true believer to the very end.  A member of the so-called “left opposition” that Stalin liquidated in the late 20’s and early 30’s, and an admirer of the “arch traitor” Trotsky, Serge only survived the Gulag and the execution cellars because his books had been published in the West, and he was known and admired by many fellow socialists.  As a result he was treated “gently.”  He only had to endure 80 days of solitary confinement, exile to the Central Asian city of Orenburg, and, finally deportation.  The following are a few of the hundreds of similar dark anecdotes he has left us, collected under the eyes of the GPU (secret police) during his three years in Orenburg.  The first occurred just after he and a fellow exile named Bobrov had arrived.  They had been fortunate enough to receive bread ration cards for an entire month from the GPU.  Serge recalls,

I heard shouting from the street, and then a shower of vigorous knocks on the door.  “Quick, Victor Lvovich, open up!”  Bobrov was coming back from the bakery, with two huge four-kilo loaves of black bread on his shoulders.  He was surrounded by a swarm of hungry children, hopping after the bread like sparrows (Serge records seeing these hoards of abandoned, starving children wherever he went), clinging on his clothes, beseeching:  “A little bit, uncle, just a little bit!”  They were almost naked.  We threw them some morsels, over which a pitched battle promptly began.  The next moment, our barefooted maidservant brought boiling water, unasked, for us to make tea.  When she was alone with me for a moment, she said to me, her eyes smiling, “Give me a pound of bread and I’ll give you the signal in a minute… And mark my words, citizen, I can assure you that I don’t have the syphilis, no, not me…”

The maidservants story was hardly unique.  Tens of thousands of young girls, starving and desperate, could find no other way to survive than by selling themselves.  Periodically, they were rounded up and shot, or disappeared into the camps.  Serge describes many other such scenes.  Here are some more instances of “socialist realism” from his time in Orenburg:

One ruble got you a bowl of greasy soup in the restaurant where little girls waited for you to finish eating so as to lick your plate and glean your bread crumbs.

Among the ruins of churches, in abandoned porches, on the edge of the steppe, or under the crags by the Ural, we could see Khirgiz families lying heaped together, dying of hunger.  One evening I gathered up from the ground of the deserted marketplace a child burning with fever; he was moaning, but the folk who stood around did not dare to touch him, for fear of contagion.  I diagnosed a simple case of hunger and took him off to the militia post, holding him by his frail, boiling wrist.  I fetched him a glass of water and a morsel of bread from my place; the effect on the lad was that of a small but instantaneous miracle.

My wife witnessed the following piece of thievery; a housewife had just bought a pound of butter costing fifteen rubles (three days wages for a skilled worker) when an Asiatic nipped it from her hands and made off.  He was pursued and caught easily enough, but he curled up on the earth like a ball and, for all the blows from fists or stones that rained on him from above, ate the butter.  They left him lying there, bloody but full.

At the rationing office a poster announced:  “Grandparents have no right to food cards.”  All the same, people managed to keep those “useless mouths” alive.

These incidents were repeated countless times in all the cities of the Soviet Union.  Serge describes them for us, resolving terms like “mass famine” and “widespread starvation” to the level of individuals, as if under a microscope.  He wasn’t the only one reporting them at the time.  Hundreds of others who had experienced the camps and seen similar things were publishing substantially the same things in the West in a continuous flow of books throughout the 20’s and 30’s.  The western intellectuals averted their eyes.  Those who bothered to visit the Soviet Union looked no further than Stalin’s Potemkin villages, and then returned to report in glowing terms that they had “seen the future, and it works!”  A typical example of the genre appeared in a letter written in 1927 by the famous American journalist, Dorothy Thompson, to her fiancee, Sinclair Lewis, published in the book Dorothy and Red, by journalist and left wing intellectual Vincent Sheean.  Thompson was on her way to Moscow to witness the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

We’ve just passed the Russian border – marked by a huge, glowing red star over the railroad track – my companions say “Now thank God we are safe in our own country,” and all are singing the Internationale at the top of their lungs as I write this note.

and, a bit later, from her comfortable hotel in Moscow,

As far as I can see, everybody in Russia is writing something, when he isn’t talking, and everything written is published; a sort of literary diarrhoea which may or may not be the beginning of a renaissance.  I feel as though there were a book inflation.

This giddy nonsense was already miles from reality long before Thompson wrote it.  Serge knew better.  He wrote,

All legal means of expression were now closed to us.  From 1926 onward, when the last tiny sheets put out by anarchists, syndicalists, and Maximalists had disappeared, the Central Committee had enjoyed an absolute monopoloy of printed matter.

In fact, any serious opposition to the Bolsheviks in the form of printed matter had been “liquidated” as early as 1918, as chronicled in the pages of Maxim Gorky’s paper, Novaya Zhizn, before it, too, was suppressed in mid-1918 (see Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks, 1917-1918, available at Amazon and elsewhere).  The truth was out there, and obvious, for anyone who cared to look.  Thompson and thousands of other starry-eyed western intellectuals chose not to look.  Apparently none of them ever tried the rather simple experiment of attempting to publish a piece critical of Stalin in a Soviet journal.  After all, if “everything written was published,” it should have been easy. Meanwhile, vast numbers of those who were ignoring the misery, degradation and starvation in the Soviet Union somehow managed to convince themselves that the Great Depression, was incontrovertible proof that capitalism was finished.  It was certainly bad enough as far as its victims were concerned, but represented a state of earthly bliss compared to what was going on in the Soviet Union at the same time.  Apparently Serge himself believed it to the end, never able to face the fact that Stalinism did not represent a mere ephemeral phase of “reaction” inherent in all revolutions, and that his God had failed.

If Communism proved anything, it is that human beings are only “intelligent” in comparison to the rest of the animal species on the planet.  Our vaunted rationality was utterly subverted by a bunch of half-baked and untested theories promising a Brave New World and the end of exploitation of man by man.  We believed what we wanted to believe, and didn’t wake up from the rosy dream until we were submerged under ocean’s of blood.  That, if anything, is the great advantage of secular religions compared to the more traditional kind.  In the fullness of time, the fact that their false Gods don’t exist can be demonstrated in the here and now.  The old religions put their Gods safely out of reach in the hereafter, where they couldn’t be so easily fact checked.

It would be very risky to forget about Communism.  It will be a useful episode of our history to remember should we feel inclined to embrace the next great secular religion to come along.

 

Victor Serge
Victor Serge

 

But Wait! There are More “Worries” from The Edge!

I won’t parse all 150+ of them, but here are a few more that caught my eye.

Science writer and historian Michael Shermer, apparently channeling Sam Harris, is worried about the “Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.”  According to Shermer,

…most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.

It’s only a mistake to the extent that there’s actually some “high ground” to be conceded.  There is not.  Assuming that Shermer is not referring to the trivial case of discovering mere opinions in the minds of individual humans, neither science nor philosophy is capable determining anything about objects that don’t exist.  Values, morals and ethics do not exist as objects.  They are not things-in-themselves.  They cannot leap out of the skulls of individuals and acquire a reality and legitimacy that transcends individual whim.  Certainly, large groups of individuals who discover that they have whims in common can band together and “scientifically” force their whims down the throats of less powerful groups and individuals, but, as they say, that don’t make it right.

Suppose we experience a holocaust of some kind, and only one human survived the mayhem.  No doubt he would still be able to imagine what it was like when there were large groups of other’s like himself.  He might recall how they behaved, “scientifically” categorizing their actions as “good” or “evil,” according to his own particular moral intuitions.  Supposed, now, that his life also flickered out.  What would be left of his whims?  Would the inanimate universe, spinning on towards its own destiny, care about them one way or the other.  Science can determine the properties and qualities of things.  Where, then, would the “good” and “evil” objects reside?  Would they still float about in the ether as disembodied spirits?  I’m afraid not.  Science can have nothing to say about objects that don’t exist.  Michael Shermer might feel “in his bones” that some version of “human flourishing” is “scientifically good,” but there is no reason at all why I or anyone else should agree with his opinion.  By all means, let us flourish together, if we all share that whim, but surely we can pursue that goal without tacking moral intuitions on to it.  “Scientific” morality is not only naive, but, as was just demonstrated by the Communists and the Nazis, extremely dangerous as well. According to Shermer,

We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong…

In fact, if scientists cease looking for and seeking to study objects that plainly don’t exist, it would seem to me more reason for congratulations all around than worry.  Here’s a sample of the sort of “reasoning” Shermer uses to bolster his case:

We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature.

Forgive me for being blunt, but this is gibberish.  Natural selection can have no target, because it is an inanimate process, and can no more have a purpose or will than a stone.  “Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism – people in this context – is the basis of establishing values and morals”??  Such “reasoning” reminds me of the old “Far Side” cartoon, in which one scientist turns to another and allows that he doesn’t quite understand the intermediate step in his proof:  “Miracle happens.”  If a volcano spits a molten mass into the air which falls to earth and becomes a rock, is not it, in the same sense, the “target” of the geologic processes that caused indigestion in the volcano?  Is not the survival and flourishing of that rock equally a universal “good?”

Of the remaining “worries,” this was the one that most worried me, but there were others.  Kevin Kelly, Editor at Large of Wired Magazine, was worried about the “Underpopulation Bomb.”  Noting the “Ur-worry” of overpopulation, Kelly writes,

While the global population of humans will continue to rise for at least another 40 years, demographic trends in full force today make it clear that a much bigger existential threat lies in global underpopulation.

Apparently the basis of Kelly’s worry is the assumption that, once the earths population peaks in 2050 or thereabouts, the decrease will inevitably continue until we hit zero and die out.  In his words, “That worry seems preposterous at first.”  I think it seem preposterous first and last.

Science writer Ed Regis is worried about, “Being Told That Our Destiny Is Among The Stars.”  After reciting the usual litany of technological reasons that human travel to the stars isn’t likely, he writes,

Apart from all of these difficulties, the more important point is that there is no good reason to make the trip in the first place. If we need a new “Earth 2.0,” then the Moon, Mars, Europa, or other intra-solar-system bodies are far more likely candidates for human colonization than are planets light years away.  So, however romantic and dreamy it might sound, and however much it might appeal to one’s youthful hankerings of “going into space,” interstellar flight remains a science-fictional concept—and with any luck it always will be.

In other words, he doesn’t want to go.  By all means, then, he should stay here.  I and many others, however, have a different whim.  We embrace the challenge of travel to the stars, and, when it comes to human survival, we feel existential Angst at the prospect of putting all of our eggs in one basket.  Whether “interstellar flight remains a science-fiction concept” at the moment depends on how broadly you define “we.”  I see no reason why “we” should be limited to one species.  After all, any species you could mention is related to all the rest.  Interstellar travel may not be a technologically feasible option for me at the moment, but it is certainly feasible for my relatives on the planet, and at a cost that is relatively trivial.  Many simpler life forms can potentially survive tens of thousands of years in interstellar space.  I am of the opinion that we should send them on their way, and the sooner the better.

I do share some of the other worries of the Edge contributors.  I agree, for example, with historian Noga Arikha’s worry about, “Presentism – the prospect of collective amnesia,” or, as she puts it, the “historical blankness” promoted by the Internet.  In all fairness, the Internet has provided unprecedented access to historical source material.  However, to find it you need to have the historical background to know what you’re looking for.  That background about the past can be hard to develop in the glare of all the fascinating information available about the here and now.  I also agree with physicist Anton Zeilinger’s worry about, “Losing Completeness – that we are increasingly losing the formal and informal bridges between different intellectual, mental, and humanistic approaches to seeing the world.”  It’s an enduring problem.  The name “university” was already a misnomer 200 years ago, and in the meantime the problem has only become worse.  Those who can see the “big picture” and have the talent to describe it to others are in greater demand than ever before.  Finally, I agree with astrophysicist Martin Rees’ worry that, “We Are In Denial About Catastrophic Risks.”  In particular, I agree with his comment to the effect that,

The ‘anthropocene’ era, when the main global threats come from humans and not from nature, began with the mass deployment of thermonuclear weapons. Throughout the Cold War, there were several occasions when the superpowers could have stumbled toward nuclear Armageddon through muddle or miscalculation. Those who lived anxiously through the Cuba crisis would have been not merely anxious but paralytically scared had they realized just how close the world then was to catastrophe.

This threat is still with us.  It is not “in abeyance” because of the end of the cold war, nor does that fact that nuclear weapons have not been used since World War II mean that they will never be used again.  They will.  It is not a question of “if,” but “when.”

The American Mercury is Online!

As I was going to and fro on the Internet, and walking back and forth on it, I stumbled across a site that has made the content of every issue of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury available online.  It’s a wonderful resource if you’re interested in the politics, history, literature, etc., of the 20’s and 30’s, or just want to read something entertaining.  The Sage of Baltimore was a great editor, and he won’t disappoint.  He was at the helm of the magazine from the first issue in January 1924 until December 1933.  The site actually includes issues up to 1960, but the content went downhill after Mencken left, and the Mercury eventually became something entirely different from what he had intended.  Many other interesting periodicals are available at the site, as well as books and videos.  You can visit by clicking on the hyperlinks above or point your browser to:

http://www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury

and

http://www.unz.org/Home/Introduction

H. L. Mencken
H. L. Mencken

Artifacts of the Defenders of the Faith

Pundits on the right have been less than pleased by what they view as a timid defense of freedom of speech and appeasement of radical Islamists by both Obama Administration officials and public intellectuals on the left in the wake of the murder of Ambassador Stevens and the accompanying violence in the Mideast.  See for example, this piece by Ann Althouse, and this by Victor Davis Hanson.  If the wobbly stuff emanating from the L.A. Times, The New Republic, and MSNBC is in any way representative, they have a point.  In fact, the Left in the US and Europe has been exchanging admiring glances with the Islamists for some time.  It’s not surprising.  Following the collapse of Communism, radical Islam is the only game in town if your tastes run to extreme ideologies and you like to imagine yourself as a savior of the world.  Unfortunately, it takes a very flexible intellect to abandon the ideological shibboleths embraced by the Left for the last couple of decades in favor of a misogynistic and fundamentalist version of Islam.  Hence, the love affair has been carried on from a distance for the most part.  If it’s any consolation to Professors Althouse and Hanson, things have been worse.  Much worse.

It’s instructive to occasionally step back from the flood of information about current events that constantly pours in over the public media and look at the equivalent sources of information and opinion from times gone by.  Consider the first half of the 1930’s, for example.  The Great Depression had a strong tendency to adjust the attitudes of the public intellectuals of the day.  Many of them were also fascinated by, and strongly supportive of, the totalitarian regimes that had recently appeared on the scene, some leaning to the Communist and some to the fascist variants thereof.  I found interesting examples of both while thumbing through an old copy of The Atlantic Monthly.

The issue in question, dated November 1934, began with a piece by Vincent Sheean entitled “Youth and Revolution.”  I highly recommend Sheean’s books, such as Not Peace but a Sword and Personal History to interested readers.  Sheean was an excellent writer and journalist, and had a knack for turning up at key places just as events that shaped history were happening.  He was also a forerunner of what a whole generation of later journalists became; a self-appointed champion of noble causes who saw the world in stark black and white, with few shades of grey in between.  He had no illusions about Hitler at all, and witnessed and wrote about Nazi brutality against the Jews at a time when many “experts” who should have known better were dismissing such stories as “atrocity fables.”  Hitler was a “bad guy.”  Stalin and the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were “good guys.”  When it came to the bloody deeds of the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, Sheean didn’t miss a trick, but was strangely blind to the ample evidence of similar mayhem available at the time if the perpetrators happened to be Communists.

In the article he wrote for the Atlantic, Sheean describes a trip to China in 1927.  To set the stage historically, he arrived in China during the Northern Expedition, in which Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek triumphed over a coalition of warlords and succeeded in uniting most of the country in 1928.  Nanking had fallen to them in March 1927, a couple of weeks before Sheean arrived, and tensions between Chiang and the Communists in the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) were coming to a head.  They would soon culminate in Shanghai Massacre and the purge of Communists from the party which, until then had been supplied with arms and money from the Soviet Union.  The Soviet envoy, Mikhail Borodin, was allowed to “escape” from the country.  Here are a few excerpts from Sheean’s article:

The moment of triumph was inevitably the one in which the two elements among the Cantonese victors would separate.  Genuine revolutionaries – those who wished to change the conditions of life in China, and not simply the forms or names of government – found themselves obliged to cling to the Left Wing of the Kuomintang, in which Russian influence was paramount.  The others – those who took part in the revolution for their own advantage, or were prevented by the tenacity of middle-class ideas from wishing to disturb the established arrangement of wealth – collected around the treasuries of Shanghai and Nanking, under the patronage of the Chinese bankers of those cities and their new ally, Chiang Kai-shek.

…the difference between an academic acquaintance with Communism and an actual perception of its spirit is very great.  The step required to pass from the first state to the second is so easy that it may be accomplished in a moment, and so difficult that it may involve the effort of a lifetime… but when the step has at last been taken, the barrier passed, we enter a world in which all parts of the structure of existence are so related and harmonized, so subjugated to a sovereign system, that its ordered beauty and majesty give us the sensation of a new form of life, as if we had moved off into space and taken up our abode, for a time, on another star… The world of Lenin (which is, in effect, all around us) can be entered in a moment, but only if the disposition of circumstances, persons, influences, can conquer the laziness of a bourgeois mind.  The required combinations occurred for me at Hankow, and were given force and form, particularly, by Michael Borodin and Rayna Prohme (Russian editor of the left wing Kuomintangs newspaper).

Borodin, a large, calm man with the natural dignity of a lion or a panther, had that special quality of being in, but above, the battle that seems to me to deserve, in itself and without regard to the judgment of the world, the name of greatness… As I knew him better I perceived – or, rather, he showed me – how his political philosophy made breadth and elevation inevitable in the mind that understood it.  He was an Old Bolshevik.

Such were the musings and reminiscences of a “mainstream media” journalist in 1934.  As the reader will gather, Sheean was singularly ill-equipped intellectually to give his audience a balanced view of the Stalinist regime in Russia, or an understanding of the real nature of Communism.  I encourage anyone who thinks he was the only one writing the sort of stuff cited above in 1934 to look through a few of the intellectual journals of the time.  The question among many of the authors who contributed to them was not whether capitalism was dead, but which flavor of socialism would replace it, and whether the “inevitable” transition would occur violently or not.  For the record, Borodin disappeared into the Gulag in 1949, and died in captivity in 1951, having escaped that fate much longer than most of the old Bolsheviks.  The current state of the “worker’s paradise” in China should be familiar to most readers.

Apologists for the other brand of totalitarianism extant at the time, fascism, were fewer in number, but hardly uncommon.  One of them, William Orton, a professor of economics at Smith College, contributed an article to the Atlantic entitled “New Wine in Germany.” It soothed readers’ “irrational” fears about Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime that had seized power in that country in January 1933.  Orton had no more problem with Hitler’s suppression of “bourgeois” freedoms than Sheean had with the suppression of those freedoms by the Communists.  He wrote at a time when much of the propaganda about atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in World War I had been debunked, spawning an attitude among intellectuals that all reports of atrocities were to be taken with a grain of salt.  This instance of “learning the lessons of history” was particularly unhelpful at a time when the Communists and Nazis were competing for the title of greatest mass murderers of all time.  The many eyewitness reports coming out of Germany and the Soviet Union were dismissed with the sage observation that, “It’s necessary to break a few eggs to make an omelet.  Orton applied this logic to the violent Nazi persecution of the Jews that Sheean, among others, had already described in great detail.  Here are some of the things he had to say about the “New Wine in Germany.”

It is not difficult, after three thousand miles of travel in Germany, to recognize in one’s mind a certain general impression; but it is almost impossible to convey that impression in speech or writing.  One has the sense of a tremendous spiritual or psychological fact – overwhelming in its magnitude, urgent in its significance.  But since the ingredients of this fact are primarily neither personal nor political, it eludes the scope of both the ordinary news story and the ordinary article.  Perhaps the film could do it justice.

A sound film, of course, it would have to be.  Drums – no, not the drums first.  Silence – the silence that surrounds a great ship coming into harbor; and, somewhere up above, a band playing the new national anthem, the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ – a fine music, reserved, steady, powerful in its measure, swinging out in the sunshine over the massed decks, over the narrowing water, over the crowded dock, over thousands of arms held motionless in the splendid gesture of the Fascist salute.  Swing the camera along those lines of hands, held tense, not flaccid; close up to the faces; look at the lips, look at the eyes, shining, shining…

Confronted by this transition from party to government, British and American opinion exhibits a reluctance to face the facts that amounts to a positive refusal.  Atrocity stories are played up, blunders magnified, oppression emphasized, …until a fair estimate of Hitler and his system is out of the question.  There was the same display of stubborn short-sightedness in regard to the Italian and the Russian revolution, but in neither case was the myopia as acute as in this one.  The roots of the disease must be exposed, since it renders a realistic attitude to modern Germany impossible.

Evidently Orton considered himself just the man to cure the “myopia,” and convey a “realistic attitude” about Hitler.  He continues,

Germany is completely united in the determination to assert her equality of status with other powers; she has the means to do so, and there exists neither the right nor the possibility of preventing her.

Whether we will or no, we must take the risk of believing in the German people.

Germany has no present desire to provoke a war; and she has given certain tangible evidences (as Mussolini did not) of this fact.  Hitler said, a few weeks ago, that ‘no colony was worth a single German life.’  His lieutenants have repeatedly said that with the return of the Saar there will remain no further cause of quarrel with France.  There is good ground for accepting these assurances.  But more weighty evidence is supplied by the ten-year treaty with Poland and the agreement recently concluded by Danzig with that state.  To anyone who knows at first hand what conditions are like on the eastern border, those two settlements are an impressive demonstration of the will to peace.

Anti-semitism had been a problem, but Hitler had wisely put a stop to it:

Anti-semitism got altogether out of hand; until, when Streicher’s organ, Der Stürmer, attacked the President of Czechoslovakia, that too had to be temporarily suppressed.

It was with such stories of Hitler’s “will to peace” and his “suppression of anti-Semitism” that Orton reassured and “enlightened” the  great democracies on the eve of the greatest existential struggle in their history.  It is not recorded that he suffered any ill consequences for this “service.”  As far as one can tell, it was forgotten, and he continued as a respected professor at Smith until his death in 1952.  Searching the Internet, one learns that, “Russell Kirk praised Orton as a “humane economist,” “at once liberal and conservative,” seeking to “liberalize and humanize the Dismal Science.”

In a word, conservatives frustrated with the Left’s flirtations with radical Islam should take heart.  Things have been worse.  At the moment, at least, the United States and the European democracies don’t face an immediate threat to their existence.  Meanwhile, there is no reason to believe that we will not continue to be “enlightened” about similar threats as we move into the future.  Whether such “enlightenment” will be a significant contributor to our eventual downfall only time will tell.

The Rise of The Cliodynamicists

Those who’ve read science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy will recall the character of Hari Seldon, a scientist/prophet who developed the mathematical discipline of psychohistory, which enabled him to both predict and guide future events.  He taught that the future would be punctuated by “Seldon Crises,” which mankind would have to successfully negotiate if the good guys were to win in the end.  There have been many would be Hari Seldons in real life, among whom Karl Marx was probably the most prominent.  The latest variation on the theme is known as cliodynamics, defined by the journal of that name as “…a transdisciplinary area of research integrating historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases.”

According to a recent paper by cliodynamicist Peter Turchin entitled, “Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780–2010,” the Republic has so far successfully negotiated three Seldon Crisis analogs, and will encounter the next one around 2020.  The article includes a graph purporting to show how a composite of riots, lynchings, and terrorism peaked in the three earlier events, which occurred around 1870, 1920, and 1970, at neat 50-year intervals.  One enduring constant in history has certainly been the enduring popularity of fortune tellers.  There have been so many of them that some fraction of their predictions are bound to come true, or at least nearly true, thereby “proving” the general validity of the trade for the next generation of soothsayers.  This latest “scientific” version may be similarly “proved,” but I doubt it has a significant leg up over Nostradamus or the Mayan calendar.

Notice, for example, that the three earlier peaks happened to coincide with major wars, all of which had been predicted many years in advance of the time they actually happened, but none of which were provably inevitable, and, at least in the first two cases, were sparked, not by “macrosociological” cycles, but, in one instance, by the election of Abraham Lincoln, and in the next by the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary.  A peak seems to be missing for 1820, and bona fide insurrections like Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion that were certainly much remarked on by people at the time they happened are missing from the data.  Similar “peaks” in other countries haven’t happened at neat intervals, nor have they been separated at anything like 50 years.  For example, in France, major revolutions occurred in 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1870, with enough miscellaneous mayhem mixed in at random intervals between to make the U.S. “peaks” of 1920 and 1970 look like child’s play.

Well, what of it?  At worst the cliodynamicists may inspire a few people to take an interest in history, and at best they may significantly shorten the period of chaos between the rise and fall of galactic empires.

Hari Seldon

The Atomic Bomb and the Premonitions of James Burnham

We tend to be strongly influenced by the recent past in our predictions about the future.  After World War I, any number of pundits, statesmen, and military officers thought the next war would be a carbon copy of the one they had just lived through, albeit perhaps on a larger scale.  The German government’s disastrous decision to declare war in 1914 was likely influenced by the quick and decisive German victories in 1864, 1866, and 1870.  The Japanese were similarly mesmerized by their brilliant success against the Russians in 1904-05 after an opening surprise attack against the Russian fleet lying at anchor at Port Arthur, and assumed history would repeat itself if they launched a similar attack against Pearl Harbor.

Sometimes startling events force the reevaluation of old ideas and paradigms, such as the German armored Blitzkrieg or the destruction of powerful battleships from the air in World War II, or, more recently, the sudden collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union from 1989-91.  We are always fascinated by such events, yet few of us grasp their significance as they are happening.  Our tendency is always to look backwards, to fit the revolutionary and the unprecedented into the old world that we understand rather than the new one that we can’t yet imagine.  So it was after the dropping of the first atomic bombs.  It certainly focused the attention of public intellectuals, unleashing a torrent of essays full of dire predictions.  For many, the future they imagined was simply a continuation of the immediate past, albeit with new and incredibly destructive weapons.  It was to include the continued inexorable push for world dominion by totalitarian Communism, centered in the Soviet Union, and world wars following each other in quick succession every 15 to 20 years, about the same as the interval between the first two world wars.

Such a vision of the future was described by James Burnham in “The Struggle for the World,” published in 1947.  Burnham was a former Marxist and Trotskyite who eventually abandoned Marxism, and became one of the leading conservative intellectuals of his day.  His thought made a deep impression on, among others, George Orwell.  For example, he had suggested the possibility of a world dominated by three massive totalitarian states, constantly at war with each other, in an earlier book, “The Managerial Revolution,” published in 1941.  These became Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia in Orwell’s “1984.”  The notions of “doublethink”, the totalitarian use of terms such as “justice” and “peace” in a sense opposite to their traditional meanings, and the rewriting of history every few years “so that history itself will always be a confirmation of the immediate line of the party,” familiar to readers of “1984,” were also recurrent themes in “The Struggle for the World.”

Burnham, born in 1905, had come of age during the stunning period of wars, revolutions, and the birth of the first totalitarian states that began and ended with the world wars of the 20th century.  He assumed that events of such global impact would continue at the same pace, only this time in a world with nuclear weapons.   As a former Marxist, he knew that the Communists, at least, were deliberately engaged in a “struggle for the world,” and was dismayed that U.S. politicians at the time were so slow to realize the nature of the struggle.  He also correctly predicted that, unless they were stopped, the Communists would develop nuclear weapons in their Soviet base “in a few years.”  This, he warned, could not be allowed to happen because it would inevitably and quickly lead to a full scale nuclear exchange.  His reasoning was as follows:

Let us assume that more than one (two is enough for the assumption) power possesses, and is producing, atomic weapons.  Each will be improving the efficiency and destructive potential of the weapons as it goes along.  Now let us try to reason as the leaders of these powers would be compelled to reason.

Each leader of Power A could not but think as follows:  Power B has at its disposal instruments which could, in the shortest time, destroy us.  He has possibly made, or is about to make, new discoveries which will threaten even more complete and rapid destruction.  At the moment, perhaps, he shows no open disposition to use these instruments.  Nevertheless, I cannot possibly rely on his continued political benevolence – above all since he knows that I also have at my disposal instruments that can destroy him.  Some hothead – or some wise statesman – of his may even now be giving the order to push the necessary buttons.

Even if there were no atomic weapons, many of the leaders would undoubtedly be reasoning today along these lines.  Atomic weapons are, after all, not responsible for warfare, not even for the Third World War, which has begun.  The fact that the political and social causes of a war are abundantly present stares at us from every edition of every newspaper.  The existence of atomic weapons merely raises the stakes immeasurably higher, and demands a quicker decision.

But to assume, as do some foolish commentators, that fear of retaliation will be the best deterrent to an atomic war is to deny the lessons of the entire history of war and of society.  Fear, as Ferrero so eloquently shows, is what provokes the exercise of force.  Most modern wars have been, in the minds of every belligerent, preventive:  an effort to stamp out the fear of what the other side might be about to do.

The existence of two or more centers of control of atomic weapons would be equal to a grenade with the pin already pulled.

According to Burnham, the resulting nuclear war or wars would lead to the collapse of Western Civilization.  In his words,

If, however, we are not yet ready to accept passively the final collapse of Western Civilization, we may state the following as a necessary first condition of any workable solution of the problem of atomic weapons: there must be an absolute monopoly of the production, possession and use of all atomic weapons.

One wonders what direction world history might have taken had someone like Burnham been President in 1950 instead of Truman.  He would have almost certainly adopted MacArthur’s plan to drop numerous atomic bombs on China and North Korea.  We were lucky.  In the end, Truman’s homespun common sense prevailed over Burnham’s flamboyant intellect, and the nuclear genie remained in the bottle.

However, in 1947 the U.S. still had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, and, for the reasons cited above, Burnham insisted we must keep it.  He suggested that this might best be done by establishing an effectual world government, but dismissed the possibility as impractical.  The only workable alternative to a Communist conquest of the world or full scale nuclear war and the end of Western Civilization was U.S. hegemony.  In Burnham’s words,

It is not our individual minds or desires, but the condition of world society, that today poses for the Soviet Union, as representative of communism, and for the United States, as representative of Western Civilization, the issue of world leadership. No wish or thought of ours can charm this issue away.

This issue will be decided, and in our day. In the course off the decision, both of the present antagonists may, it is true, be destroyed. But one of them must be.

Whatever the words, it is well also to know the reality. The reality is that the only alternative to the communist World Empire is an American Empire which will be, if not literally worldwide in formal boundaries, capable of exercising decisive world control. Nothing less than this can be the positive, or offensive, phase of a rational United States policy.

As a first step to empire, Burnham proposed the union of Great Britain and the United States, to be followed, not by outright conquest, but by firm assertion of U.S. predominance and leadership in the non-Communist world.   Beyond that, the Communist threat must finally be recognized for what it was, and a firm, anti-Communist policy substituted for what was seen as a lack of any coherent policy at all.  Vacillation must end.

Fortunately, when it came to the nuclear standoff, Burnham was wrong, and the “foolish commentators” who invoked the fear of retaliation were right.  Perhaps, having only seen the effects of dropping two low yield bombs, he could not yet imagine the effect of thousands of bombs orders of magnitude more powerful, or conceive of such a thing as mutually assured destruction.  Perhaps it was only dumb luck, but the world did not stumble into a nuclear World War III as it had into the conventional world wars of the 20th century, and the decisive events in the struggle did not follow each other nearly as quickly as Burnham imagined they would.

Burnham also failed to foresee the implications of the gradual alteration in the nature of the Communist threat.  At the time he wrote, it was everything he claimed it to be, a messianic secular religion at the height of its power and appeal.  He assumed that it would retain that power and appeal until the battle was decided, one way or the other.  Even though he was aware that the masses living under Communism, other than a dwindling number of incorrigible idealists, were already disillusioned by “the God that failed,” he didn’t foresee what a decisive weakness that would eventually become.   In the end, time was on our side.  The Communists, and not we, as Lenin had predicted, finally dropped onto the garbage heap of history “like a ripe plum.”

However, Burnham wasn’t wrong about everything.  To win the struggle, it was necessary for us to finally recognize the threat.  Whatever doubt remained on that score, at least as far as most of our political leaders were concerned, was dissipated by the North Korean invasion of the south.  Our policy of vacillation didn’t exactly end, but was occasionally relieved by periods of firmness.  In the end, in spite of a media dominated through most of the struggle by Lenin’s “useful idiots” and the resultant cluelessness of most Americans about what we were even trying to do on the front lines of the “clash between the cultures” in places like Vietnam, we prevailed.

It was a near thing.  Burnham feared that, even after losing the opening battles of the next war to a United States with a monopoly of nuclear weapons, the Communists might regroup, abandon their vulnerable cities, and transform the struggle into a “people’s war.”  His description of what would follow was eerily similar to what actually did happen, but in a much smaller arena than the whole world:

They would transform the struggle into a political war, a “people’s war,” fought in every district of the world by irregulars, partisans, guerillas, Fifth Columns, spies, stool pigeons, assassins, fought by sabotage and strikes and lies and terror and diversion and panic and revolt. They would play on every fear and prejudice of the United States population, every feeling of guilt or nobility; they would exploit every racial and social division; they would widen every antagonism between tentative allies; and they would tirelessly wear down the United States will to endure.

Though the result would be not quite so certain, perhaps, as if the communists also had atomic weapons, they would in the end, I think, succeed. Because of the lack of a positive United States policy, because it would not have presented to the world even the possibility of a political solution, its dreadful material strength would appear to the peoples as the unrelieved brutality of a murderer. Its failure to distinguish between the communist regime and that regime’s subject-victims would weld together the victims and their rulers. Americans themselves would be sickened and conscience-ridden by what would seem to them a senseless slaughter, never-ending, leading nowhere. The military leadership would be disoriented by the inability of their plans based on technical superiority to effect a decision. The failure to conceive the struggle politically would have given the communists the choice of weapons. From the standpoint of the United States, the entire world would have been turned into an ambush and a desert. In the long night, nerves would finally crack, and sentries would fire their last shots wildly into the darkness, and it would all be over.

Change “the world” to Vietnam and it reads like a history instead of a premonition.  Tomorrow is another day, and I doubt that any of us will prove better at predicting what the future will bring than Burnham.  We have lived through an era much different, more peaceful, and more sedate in the pace of events than the one he experienced between 1914 and 1945.  We should beware of assuming, as he did, that the future will bear any resemblance to the immediate past.  The world is still full of nuclear weapons, some of them already in the hands of, or soon to be in the hands of, dictators of suspect rationality.  Some of our intellectuals soothe our fears with stories about the “vanishing of violence,” but as Omar Khayyam put it in the “Rubaiyat,” they could soon be “cast as foolish prophets forth, their mouths stopped with dust,” through some miscalculation or deliberate act of malice.  As the Boy Scouts say, “be prepared.”