Before implementing radical social theories as the Communists tried to do in Russia in 1917, its always a good idea to try them out on a modest scale that doesn’t involve murdering anyone. That goes double if the radical social theory in question has a strong appeal to those whose tastes run to saving the world. The speed at which human reason runs off the track varies in direct proportion to the complexity of a hypothesis and the lack of repeatable experiments to confirm it. Unfalsifiable hypotheses are born off the track. Data in support of the above may be found in a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Robert Morris in 1783, when he was serving as our Minister Plenipotentiary in France. Referring to some resolutions against taxation adopted in town meetings he wrote,
Money justly due from the people, is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law. All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention. Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it. All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition. He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages! He can have right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.
Of course, in the meantime we’ve carried out numerous repeatable experiments that seem to demonstrate quite conclusively that government policies intended to implement such ideas are undesirable because they don’t work. In the end, they don’t serve the “welfare of the public” because they fail to take the behavioral idiosyncracies of our species into account. Does that mean that Franklin was stupid? Far from it. As his experiments with electricity demonstrate, he had the mind of a true scientist. The comments in his autobiography about influencing others to accept new ideas might have been lifted from a 21st century textbook on moral psychology. More importantly, his combination of brilliance and common sense were an invaluable guide and support to our Republic in its infancy.
The point is that even the most brilliant human beings can easily delude themselves into believing things that are not true, and even things that in the light of later experience seem palpably silly. We are not nearly as smart as we think we are. The next time some wildly popular messianic scheme for saving the world inflicts itself on mankind, it’s “enlightened” proponents would do well to keep that in mind.
As for old Ben, the quote above was more the product of exasperation than sober thought. Robert Morris was the great financier of our Revolution. Read the fine biography of him by Charles Rappleye, and you’re bound to wonder how we ever beat the British. Morris used all of his great intelligence, experience, and personal credit to somehow keep Washington’s army fed and clothed, in spite of the fact that the states whose independence he was fighting to win refused to be taxed. His reward for all his tireless work was to be viciously vilified by pathologically pious super-revolutionaries like Arthur Lee and his brothers, men who deemed themselves great defenders of liberty, but who actually provided more “aid and comfort” to the British than Benedict Arnold ever dreamed of. Franklin was well aware of their mendacious attacks on Morris, and their bitter resistance to any attempt to create an effective national government capable of collecting the taxes necessary to support the war effort at a time when the paper money we had relied on in the early years of the Revolution had become nearly worthless. Their type should be familiar, as there are still ample examples among us today. The fact that they provoked such a cri de Couer from Franklin should come as no surprise.
Jakob Augstein is the quintessential European version of what would be referred to in the US as a latte Liberal. Heir to what one surmises was a significant fortune from his adopted father, the Amerika-hating founder of Der Spiegel magazine, Rudolf Augstein, he nevertheless imagines himself the champion of the poor and downtrodden. His writing is certainly not original, but he is at least a good specimen of the type for anyone interested in European ideological trends. His reaction to the recent election in France is a good example.
As those who occasionally read a European headline are aware, that election resulted in the victory of socialist Francois Hollande over his austerity-promoting opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy. While certainly noteworthy, such transitions are hardly unprecedented. No matter, the ideological good guys won as far as Augstein is concerned. He greets Hollande’s seemingly unremarkable victory with peals of the Marseillaise and Liberty leading the people:
It is not just a piece of political folklore that France is the land of the revolution. No other European country has such a lively tradition of protest. La lutte permanente, the constant struggle, is part and parcel of the French civilization. In France, the centralized state historically formed an alliance with the people against feudalism. Now the time has come for that to happen again. The fact that the French picked this particular time to vote a socialist into the Elysee Palace is no coincidence. A revolutionary signal will now go forth from France to all of Europe. The new feudal lords who must be resisted are the banks.
Great shades of 1789! Break out Madame Guillotine. What can account for such an outburst of revolutionary zeal in response to what is ostensibly just another garden variety shift from the right to the left in European politics? It is, of course, “austerity,” the course of belt-tightening prescribed by Sarkozy and his pal, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, for Greece and some of the other more profligate spendthrifts in the European Union. Has austerity worked? Augstein’s answer is an unqualified “No.”
…Can one overcome a recession by saving? The answer is: No. those who save during a recession deepen the recession.
I personally rather doubt that anyone knows whether austerity “works” in a recession or not. Modern economies are too complex to simplistically attribute their success or failure to one such overriding factor and, in any case, serious austerity measures haven’t been in effect long enough to allow a confident judgment one way or the other. Certainly the opposites of austerity, such as the recent “stimulus” experiment in the US, haven’t been unqualified successes either, and have the disadvantage of leaving the states that try them mired in debt.
No matter, Augstein goes on to teach us some of the other “lessons” we should learn from the events in France. It turns out that some of these apply to Augsteins’s own country, Germany. The German taxpayers have forked over large sums to keep the economies of Greece and some of the other weak sisters in Europe afloat. Germany’s robust economy has served as an engine to pull the rest of Europe along. German’s should be patting themselves on the back for their European spirit, no?
Not according to Augstein! As he tells it, what Germans should really be doing is hanging their heads in shame.
The Germans are poster boys of the market economy. Never have interest rates been more favorable for Germany. It’s a gift of the market at the expense of the rest of Europe. She (Merkel) isn’t concerned about the European political legacy of Adenauer and Kohl. Those are such western ideas, that mean little to the woman from the east. Driven by cheap money from the international finance markets, the German export industry has scuttled European integration – and Merkel lets them get away with it.
Ah, yes, the socialists of the world have no country. We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we? If you’re successful, you must be evil. The proper response is guilt. Poor Germans! They just can’t ever seem to catch a break. Somehow they always end up in the role of villain.
According to Augstein, without the support of France, Germany and her “saving politics” are now isolated in Europe. What’s that supposed to mean? That Germans are now supposed to fork over even greater funds, this time with no strings attached in the name of “European integration?” If I were a German taxpayer, I know what my response would be: “Let the other Europeans spend and spend to their heart’s content, just as long as they don’t reach into my pocket to do it.”
Well, we’ll just have to wait and see how this flight back to socialism turns out. Who am I to say? I’m no economist. There’s an election in Germany next year. If the socialists return to power there as well, things might really get interesting. We’ll finally find out just how European socialists plan to go about ending austerity after they’ve run out of other people’s money to spend.
The memoirs of N. N. Sukhanov are probably the best eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution, or, more accurately, revolutions. The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 (old style) was preceded by the revolution that actually overthrew the czarist regime in February of that year. Sukhanov not only lived through and described it all, but, as a member of the Executive Committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet, he played a significant role in the unfolding events. He had a knack for turning up at key moments, such as the arrival of Lenin after his ride through Germany on the famous “sealed train,” the debut of Trotsky as a speaker before the Soviet, and in the Smolny headquarters of the Bolsheviks on the very day they launched their revolution. He was well known to Lenin and Trotsky, on friendly terms with such other Bolshevik luminaries as Kamenev and Lunacharsky, and occasionally slept at the home of Kerensky. More importantly as far as the subject of this post is concerned, he was a convinced left wing socialist of the type Eric Hoffer described in “The True Believer,” a religious zealot of the greatest secular religion the world has ever known.
In describing his own actions and thoughts during all these dramatic events, Sukhanov gives us an excellent close-up of the type. Like most convinced Marxists, he suffered from the delusion that the religious dogmas he devoted so much of his time to studying and pondering were really a “science.” By virtue of the “truth” this “science” revealed to him, he had become cocksure that he was superior to those who didn’t share his faith, possessed of an all-encompassing knowledge that was hidden from them. The unbelievers became, in his eyes, at best, ignorant “philistines” and, at worst, willing minions of that great outgroup of the Marxists, the bourgeoisie. A revealing instance of this attitude is his description of the conversation of two female co-workers in the czarist Ministry of Agriculture, where he held a job in spite of his illegal status (he had been banished from the city for revolutionary activities) in the days immediately preceding the February revolution:
I was sitting in my office in the Turkestan section. Behind a partition two typists were gossiping about food difficulties, rows in the shopping queues, unrest among the women, an attempt to smash into some warehouse. “D’you know,” suddenly declared one of these young ladies, “if you ask me, it’s the beginning of the revolution!”
…in those days, sitting over my irrigations systems and aqueducts, over my articles and pamphlets, my Letopis (a periodical edited by Maxim Gorky, ed.) manuscripts and proofs, I kept thinking and brooding about the inevitable revolution that was whirling down on us at full speed. These philistine girls whose tongues and typewriters were rattling away behind the partition didn’t know what a revolution was.
As far as Sukhanov was concerned, the Russia of his day was inhabited mainly by such philistines, people who, by virtue of their ignorance of the true faith, were merely an inert mass, incapable of playing an active role in the revolutionary upheavals to come. Among them were the great “grey masses” of the soldiery, suspect because of their peasant origins, and relegated to the “petty bourgeoisie,” that great Marxist catchall for “others” who didn’t happen to actually possess any of the “social means of production.”
The great exception was, of course, the proletariat. As a true believer in the Marxist religion, Sukhanov ascribed all kinds of wonderful and fantastic qualities to the demigods of that religion, the workers. They appeared to him as the beloved to her lover, paragons of every good quality. For example, in describing the scene at a meeting of the Second Congress of Soviets on the eave of the October Revolution he wrote,
It was not until 11 o’clock that bells began to ring for the meeting. The hall was already full, still with the same grey mob from the heart of the country. An enormous difference leaped to the eye: the Petersburg Soviet, that is, its Workers’ Section in particular, which consisted of average Petersburg proletarians in comparison with the masses of the Second Congress looked like the Roman Senate that the ancient Carthaginians took for an assembly of gods.
This deification of the proletariat was a reflection of the socialist true believer’s inability to see the rest of humanity as other than Marxist classes. All motives, all political goals, all human aspirations, must necessarily be forced into the Procrustean bed of some class interest. Thus, workers who opposed the Bolsheviks were transmogrified into “petty bourgeoisie,” and noblemen from wealthy families like Lenin were magically transformed into the vanguard of the working masses. So it was that Hitler’s Nazi regime and fascism in general were simply hand-waved away as “the final stage of capitalism.” Understanding human nature and the non-economic motivations it might inspire was never Communism’s strong suit. In fact, the ideology required denial of the very existence of human nature. Creatures with hard-wired behavioral predispositions could not be quickly “re-educated” to become the New Soviet Men and Women ideally suited for the worker’s paradise that was being prepared for them. In the end, of course, human nature had the last word. As E. O. Wilson famously put it, “Great theory, wrong species.”
Sukhanov suffered from another delusion common to the socialist faithful – the notion that mass organizations were spontaneous emanations of the masses themselves, called forth by historical developments. This particular fantasy was probably the most devastating of all the delusions engendered by Marxist ideology. It paralyzed any resistance to the Bolshevik coup d’etat from intelligent people who should have known better. On the contrary, many of them fought resistance by others, reasoning that, even if they didn’t agree with the Bolsheviks themselves, the party was an authentic manifestation of the popular will, instead of a tiny minority that happened to be highly effective at manipulating the popular will. Thus, to become the vanguard of the “expression of the popular will,” it was only necessary for the Bolsheviks, far superior to any potential opponent in the field in their grasp of mass psychology, to ply a highly volatile population with propaganda slogans that pandered to the mood of the moment, regardless of whether they knew them to be false themselves or not. They did so with a virtuosity that has seldom been equalled, their task facilitated by Kerensky’s ineffectual provisional government. As Sukhanov put it, “Agitation and the influence of ideas were an incomparably more reliable prop of Smolny (e.g., the Bolsheviks) than military operations.” In the end, far from being the source of a revolutionary upheaval that they had been during the February revolution, the masses became mere willing tools for the tiny minority who actually did make the revolution. Meanwhile, the more “advanced” socialists of other parties stood idly by, convinced that the Bolshevik coup was “theoretically” wrong, but represented the will of the masses, nevertheless.
So it was that Sukhanov, even though he opposed what the Bolsheviks were doing, not only failed to act against them himself, but denounced those who did try to act as “counter-revolutionaries.” His mind muddled by the dogmas of a new religion he took for “science,” he was incapable of perceiving the Bolsheviks as anything but the true representatives of the “democracy!” He suffered from this delusion to the point that he seriously believed his party could have formed a “united front” with this “democracy,” and even considered his failure to do so his “greatest crime.” After the Mensheviks and other left socialists, led by the left Menshevik Julius Martov, had decided to walk out of the Second Congress of Soviets which the Bolsheviks controlled and used as the legal facade for their coup, thus abandoning the “democracy,” he wrote,
So the thing was done. We had left, not knowing where or why, after breaking with the Soviet, getting ourselves mixed up with counter-revolutionary elements, discrediting and debasing ourselves in the eyes of the masses, and ruining the entire future of our organization and our principles. And that was the least of it: in leaving we completely untied the Bolsheviks’ hands, making them masters of the entire situation and yielding to them the whole arena of the revolution.
A struggle at the Congress for a united democratic front might have had some success. For the Bolsheviks as such, for Lenin and Trotsky, it was more odious than the possible Committees of Public Safety or another Kornilov march on Petersburg. The exit of the “pure in heart” freed the Bolsheviks from this danger. By quitting the Congress and leaving the Bolsheviks with only the Left SR (Socialist Revolutionary) youngsters and the feeble little Novaya Zhizn (paper edited by Gorky, ed.) group, we gave the Bolsheviks with our own hands a monopoly of the Soviet, of the masses, and of the revolution. By our own irrational decision we ensured the victory of Lenin’s whole “line.”
I personally committed not a few blunders and errors in the revolution. But I consider my greatest and most indelible crime the fact that I failed to break with the Martov group immediately after our fraction voted to leave, and didn’t stay on at the Congress. To this day I have not ceased regretting this October 25th crime of mine.
All this, of course, was a complete chimera. Once the Bolsheviks had consolidated power, they had not the least intention of sharing it with anyone. The idea that walking out on the Bolshevik “democracy” had “freed their hands” was the purest fantasy.
The socialist religion was the great hope of the 19th century, and the great disaster of the 20th. In the end it demonstrated once again, as the spiritual religions that preceded it had done many times before, that belief in things that are false can lead to very unpleasant results including, as we have seen only too frequently of late, self-destruction in the hope of an illusory paradise to come. So it was with Sukhanov and the other Bolshevik fellow travelers as well. Sukhanov was lucky. He was merely arrested and disappeared into the Gulag, where he apparently survived longer than most. In general, Stalin was in the habit of shooting these “intellectuals” who had done so much to facilitate his rise to power.
Rick Santorum threw the Left a meaty pitch right down the middle with his comments about “theology” to an audience in Columbus. Here’s what he said:
It’s not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your job. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology. But no less a theology.
The quote seems to lend credence to the “Santorum is a scary theocrat” meme, and the Left lost no time in flooding the media and the blogosphere with articles to that effect. The Right quickly fired back with the usual claims that the remarks were taken out of context. This time the Right has it right. For example, from Foxnews,
Rick Santorum said Sunday he wasn’t questioning whether President Obama is a Christian when he referred to his “phony theology” over the weekend, but was in fact challenging policies that he says place the stewardship of the Earth above the welfare of people living on it.
“I wasn’t suggesting the president’s not a Christian. I accept the fact that the president is a Christian,” Santorum said.
“I was talking about the radical environmentalist,” he said. “I was talking about energy, this idea that man is here to serve the Earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal.
I note in passing a surprising thing about almost all the articles about this story, whether they come from the Left or the Right. The part of Santorum’s speech that actually does put things in context is absent. Here it is:
I think that a lot of radical environmentalists have it backwards. This idea that man is here to serve the earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth. Man is here to use the resources and use them wisely. But man is not here to serve the earth.
I can understand its absence on the Left, but on the Right? Could it be that contrived controversies are good for the bottom line? Well, be that as it may, I’m not adding my two cents worth to this kerfluffle because I’m particularly fond of Santorum. However, he did touch on a matter that deserves serious consideration; the existence of secular religions.
In fact, there are secular religions, and they have dogmas, just like the more traditional kind. It’s inaccurate to call those dogmas “theologies,” because they don’t have a Theos, but otherwise they’re entirely similar. In both cases they describe elaborate systems of belief in things that either have not or cannot be demonstrated and proved. The reason for this is obvious in the case of traditional religions. They are based on claims of the existence of spiritual realms inaccessible to the human senses. Secular dogmas, on the other hand, commonly deal with events that can’t be fact-checked because they are to occur in the future.
Socialism in it’s heyday was probably the best example of a secular religion to date. While it lasted, millions were completely convinced that the complex social developments it predicted were the inevitable fate of mankind, absent any experimental demonstration or proof whatsoever. Not only did they believe it, they considered themselves superior in intellect and wisdom to other mere mortals by virtue of that knowledge. They were elitists in the truest sense of the word. Thousands and thousands of dreary tomes were written elaborating on the ramifications and details of the dogma, all based on the fundamental assumption that it was true. They were similar in every respect to the other thousands and thousands of dreary tomes of theology written to elaborate on conventional religious dogmas, except for the one very important distinction referred to above. Instead of describing an entirely different world, they described the future of this world.
That was their Achilles heal. The future eventually becomes the present. The imaginary worker’s paradise was eventually exchanged for the very real Gulag, mass executions, and exploitation by a New Class beyond anything ever imagined by the bourgeoisie. Few of the genuine zealots of the religion ever saw the light. They simply refused to believe what was happening before their very eyes, on the testimony of thousands of witnesses and victims. Eventually, they died, though, and their religion died with them. Socialism survives as an idea, but no longer as the mass delusion of cocksure intellectuals. For that we can all be grateful.
In a word, then, the kind of secular “theologies” Santorum was referring to really do exist. The question remains whether the specific one he referred to, radical environmentalism, rises to the level of such a religion. I think not. True, some of the telltale symptoms of a secular religion are certainly there. For example, like the socialists before them, environmental ideologues are characterized by a faith, free of any doubt, that a theoretically predicted future, e.g., global warming, will certainly happen, or at least will certainly happen unless they are allowed to “rescue” us. The physics justifies the surmise that severe global warming is possible. It does not, however, justify fanatical certainty. Probabilistic computer models that must deal with billions of ill-defined degrees of freedom cannot provide certainty about anything.
An additional indicator is the fact that radical environmentalists do not admit the possibility of honest differences of opinion. They have a term for those who disagree with them; “denialists.” Like the heretics of religions gone before, denialists are an outgroup. It cannot be admitted that members of an outgroup have honest and reasonable differences of opinion. Rather, they must be the dupes of dark political forces, or the evil corporations they serve, just as, in an earlier day, anyone who happened not to want to live under a socialist government was automatically perceived as a minion of the evil bourgeoisie.
However, to date, at least, environmentalism possesses nothing like the all encompassing world view, or “Theory of Everything,” if you will, that, in my opinion at least, would raise it to the level of a secular religion. For example, Christianity has its millennium, and the socialists had their worker’s paradise. The environmental movement has nothing of the sort. So far, at least, it also falls short of the pitch of zealotry that results in the spawning of warring internal sects, such as the Arians and the Athanasians within Christianity, or the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks within socialism.
In short, then, Santorum was right about the existence of secular religions. He was merely sloppy in according that honor to a sect that really doesn’t deserve it.
Geoffrey Gorer was a British anthropologist, essayist, long-time friend of George Orwell, and, at least in my estimation, a very intelligent man. He was also a Blank Slater. In other words, he was a proponent of the orthodox dogma that prevailed among psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and other experts in the behavioral sciences during much of the 20th century according to which there was no such thing as human nature or, if it existed at all, its impact on human behavior was insignificant. He defended that orthodoxy, among other places, in Man and Aggression, a collection of essays edited by Ashley Montagu, and an invaluable piece of source material for students of the Blank Slate phenomenon.
Now, of course, after one of the most remarkable paradigm shifts in the history of mankind, the Blank Slate has gone the way of Aristotelian cosmology, and books roll off the presses in an uninterrupted stream discussing innate human behavior as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial. How, one might ask, if Geoffrey Gorer really was such an intelligent man, could he ever have taken the Blank Slate ideology seriously? Well, I speak of intelligence in relative terms. Taken as a whole, we humans aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are and, as Julius Caesar once said, we have a marked tendency to belief what we want to believe.
And why did Gorer “want” to believe in the Blank Slate? I submit it was for the same reason that so many of his contemporaries defended the theory; their faith in socialism. I do not use the term socialism in any kind of a pejorative sense. Rather, I speak of it as the social phenomenon it was; for all practical purposes a secular religion posing as a science. It is scarcely possible for people today to grasp the power and pervasiveness of socialist ideology in its heyday. We have the advantage of hindsight and have watched socialist systems, ranging from the Communist authoritarian versions to the benign, democratic variant of the type tried in Great Britain after the war, fail over and over again. Earlier generations did not have that advantage.
More or less modern socialist theories were prevalent in England long before Marx. By 1917 they had taken such root in the minds of the Russian intelligentsia that Maxim Gorky could write that he couldn’t imagine a democratic state that wasn’t socialist. A couple of decades later, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, Malcolm Muggeridge remarked that,
In 1931, protests were made in Parliament against a broadcast by a Cambridge economist, Mr. Maurice Dobb, on the ground that he was a Marxist; now the difficulty would be to find an economist employed in any university who was not one.
Anyone doubting the influence of similar ideas in the United States at the time need only go back and read the New Republic, The Nation, The American Mercury, and some of the other intellectual and political journals of the mid-30’s. In a word, then, socialism was once accepted as an unquestionable truth by large numbers of very influential intellectuals. It seemed perfectly obvious that capitalism was gasping its last, and the only question left seemed to be how the transition to socialism would take place, and how the socialist states of the future should be run.
There was just one problem with this as far as the social and behavioral sciences were concerned. Socialism and human nature were mutually exclusive. The firmest defenders of genetically programmed behavioral predispositions in human beings have never denied the myriad possible variations in human societies that are attributable to culture and environment. Socialism, however, required more than that. It required human behavior to be infinitely malleable which, if innate behavioral predispositions exist, it most decidedly is not.
Which brings us back to Geoffrey Gorer. In an essay entitled, appropriately enough, The Remaking of Man, written in 1956, we can follow the intellectual threads that show how all this came together in the mind of a mid-20th century anthropologist. I will let Gorer speak for himself.
One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation. This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.
Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.
In Gorer’s opinion the problem wasn’t human nature. It couldn’t be, or socialism wouldn’t work. The problem was that we simply hadn’t been using the right technique. For example, we hadn’t been relying on proper role models. Gorer had somehow convinced himself that female school teachers had played a decisive role in altering the character of immigrants to American, “transforming them within a generation into good citizens of their countries of adoption, with changed values, habits and expectations… In our original thinking, this role of the school-teacher, and the derivatives of this situation, were idiosyncratic to the culture of the United States.” According to Gorer, the introduction of police in England had had a similar magical effect. By serving as role models, they had, almost sole-handedly, brought about “the great modifications in the behavior of the English urban working classes in the nineteenth century from violence and lawlessness to gentleness and law-abiding.” They had, “…provided an exemplar of self-control which the mass of the population could emulate and use as a model.” If the phrase “just so story” popped into your mind, you’re not alone. Of course, one man’s “just so story” is another man’s “scientific hypothesis.” It all depends on whether it happens to be politically convenient or not.
Proper role models, then, were one of the ingredients that Gorer discovered were needed to “change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.” He discovered no less than four more in the process of reading Margaret Mead’sNew Lives for Old, which he described as “account of a society which has transformed itself within twenty-five years.” The society in question was that of the Manus, inhabitants of the Admiralty Islands, which lie just north of New Guinea. And sure enough, their society did change drastically in a generation and, if we are to believe Mead, for the good. This change had been greatly facilitated by one Paliau, a charismatic leader of the Manu who luckily happened along at the time. Gorer admitted this was a fortuitous accident, but he saw, or at least imagined he saw, several other ingredients for radical change which could be applied by properly qualified experts. In his words,
The availability of a man of Paliau’s genius is obviously an unpredictable accident which cannot be generalized; but the other four conditions – readiness for change, the presentation of a model for study and observation, the sudden and complete break with the past, nurture and support during the first years of the new life – would seem to provide a paradigm of the way in which men may be changed in a single generation.
Human societies certainly may change radically within a very short time. It is an adaptive trait that accounts for the fact that we managed, not only to survive, but to thrive during times of rapid environmental change. The brilliant South African, Eugene Marais, was the first to make the connection. In his words,
If now we picture the great continent of Africa with its extreme diversity of natural conditions – its high, cold, treeless plateaux; its impenetrable tropical forests; its great river systems; its inland seas; its deserts; its rain and droughts; its sudden climatic changes capable of altering the natural aspect of great tracts of country in a few years – all forming an apparently systemless chaos, and then picture its teeming masses of competing organic life, comprising more species, more numbers and of greater size than can be found on any other continent on earth, is it not at once evident how great would be the advantage if under such conditions a species could be liberated from the limiting force of hereditary memories? Would it not be conducive to preservation if under such circumstances a species could either suddenly change its habitat or meet any new natural conditions thrust upon it by means of immediate adaptation? Is it not self-evident that in a species far-wandering, whether on account of sudden natural changes, competitive pressure, or through inborn “wanderlust,” those individuals which could best and most quickly adapt themselves to the most varied conditions would be the ones most likely to survive and perpetuate the race, and that among species, one equipped for distant migrations would always have a better chance than a confined one? Are not all the elements present to bring about the natural selection of an attribute by means of which a species could thus meet and neutralise one of the most prolific causes of destruction?
This is not advanced as a demonstrable theory. It is no more than an attempt to show that it is hardly possible to imagine conditions existing anywhere in nature at any time which would not in some degree tend towards the evolution of such an attribute. If these present conditions are self-evidently likely to select it, how much more likely, for instance, would not its birth and growth have been during the earlier history of the planet, during the Pleistocene period, when cataclysmic movements of its crust and great and repeated climatic changes still belonged to the usual and customary category of natural events.
These astounding insights occurred to a man, working mainly alone in South Africa, in the early years of the 20th century. Marais was indeed a genius. Unfortunately, at least from Gorer’s point of view, while his theories accounted for mankind’s extreme adaptability, they in no way implied that that adaptability would enable well-meaning ideologues to reinvent human character at will to convert us into suitable inmates for whatever utopia du jour they were cooking up for us. It would seem that’s what Gorer overlooked in his sanguine conclusions about the Manu. Their society had indeed adapted, but it had done so on its own, and not as programmed by some inspired anthropologist. He concludes his essay as follows:
The great merit of New Lives for Old is that it opens up a whole new field for observation, experiment and speculation, a field of the greatest relevance to our present preoccupations.
The “present preoccupation” which required the “remaking of man” was, of course, our happy transformation to a socialism. Unfortunately, the wishful thinking of a generation of Gorers made no impression on the genetic programming responsible for our behavioral predispositions. It remained stubbornly in place, spoiling who knows how many of the splendid Brave New Worlds that noble idealists the world over were preparing for us.
In retrospect, socialism ended, as the old Bolshevik Leon Trotsky suggested it might in 1939, just before Stalin had him murdered, in a utopia. It was a secular religion that inspired a highly speculative and mindless faith in a collection of untested theories in the minds of a host of otherwise highly intelligent and perfectly sane people like Gorer, who all managed to somehow convince themselves that the socialist mirage was a “science.” As E. O. Wilson so succinctly summed it up, “Great theory, wrong species.” And that, perhaps, is the reason that the Blank Slate was defended so fiercely for so long, in the teeth of increasingly weighty scientific evidence refuting it, not to mention common sense, until its conflict with reality became too heavy to bear, and it finally collapsed. It was an indispensible prop for a God that failed.
With Animal Farm, an allegorical tale of the Russian Revolution, and 1984, a fictional analysis of the totalitarian state, George Orwell may well have done more to smash Marxist ideology than any other writer before or since. He is considered by many the great nemesis of socialism. As it happens, he was a convinced socialist himself. Anyone doubting the fact need only read Homage to Catalonia, a memoir of his service in the Spanish Civil War. If he ever felt any sympathy for the Stalinist variant of the totalitarian state, that experience cured him of it. Not so his dedication to the socialist idea. Orwell was, in fact, a revolutionary socialist. For example, during World War II he wrote,
The difference between Socialism and capitalism is not primarily a difference of technique. One cannot simply change from one system to the other as one might install a new piece of machinery in a factory, and then carry on as before, with the same people in positions of control. Obviously there is also needed a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas – in the true sense of the word, a revolution.
(Writing in 1940) The English revolution started several years ago, and it began to gather momentum when the troops came back from Dunkirk. Like all else in England, it happens in a sleepy, unwilling way, but it is happening. The war has speeded it up, but it has also increased, and desperately, the necessity for speed. …since a classless, ownerless society is generally spoken of as “Socialism”, we can give that name to the society towards which we are now moving. The war and the revolution are inseparable. We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century. The past is fighting the future and we have two years, a year, possibly only a few months, to see to it that the future wins.
We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war. …The fact that we are at war has turned Socialism from a textbook word into a realizable policy. The inefficiency of private capitalism has been proved all over Europe. Its injustice has been proved in the East End of London. …If it can be made clear that defeating Hitler means wiping out class privilege, the great mass of middling people, …will probably be on our side.
From the moment that all productive goods have been declared the property of the State, the common people will feel, as they cannot feel now, that the State is themselves.
One can predict the future in the form of an “either-or”: either we introduce Socialism, or we lose the war. (Published November, 1942)
and so on. One can find much more in the same vein in Orwell’s writings. In retrospect, it all seems a bit delusional, but Orwell was no fool. He was a surpassingly brilliant man, with a deep respect for the truth. He was no ideologue, and his analyses of the great events happening around him were often remarkably accurate and profound. If anything, his example should teach us humility. If one of the greatest thinkers our species has ever produced could have been so wide of the mark in his predictions of things to come, it might behoove us to be somewhat reticent about attempting the same thing ourselves. Black swans have a habit of turning up at embarrassing times.
For that matter, Orwell was hardly an anomaly in the first half of the twentieth century. A great number of intellectuals accepted it almost as a commonplace that socialism in some form was not only desirable, but inevitable. Many agreed with Maxim Gorky’s conclusion that democracy and socialism were inseparable. One could not exist without the other. The hard times of the 1930’s seemed to sweep away any lingering doubts that the capitalist system was at the end of its tether. The stampede to socialism was hardly just a European phenomenon. Anyone doubting that thinkers in the United States were just as susceptible to the collective delusion need only visit the stacks of a university library and look through the pages of such intellectual and political journals as the Nation, The New Republic, and the American Mercury for the year 1934. Orwell was merely one of many who saw the “obvious”: the demise of capitalism was coming sooner rather than later. The only question left was how to manage the transition to socialism as elegantly as possible.
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, we now know that capitalism was rather more tenacious than Orwell and the rest suspected. However, we would do well not to become too complacent. Technological developments like the Internet greatly enhance our access to all kinds of information, but they also tend to reinforce groupthink on both the left and the right with a power that is exponentially greater than the pamphlets and journals of the 1930’s. Our own collective delusions about the future of mankind will likely seem even more quaint half a century hence.
Orwell’s classless society may have been the stuff of dreams, but several regimes have come and gone since his death that came close to realizing the nightmare world of 1984. As we shall see, he was remarkably prescient about a good number of other things as well.