In my opinion, science, broadly construed, is the best “way of knowing” we have. However, it is not infallible, is never “settled,” cannot “say” anything, and can be perverted and corrupted for any number of reasons. The Blank Slate affair was probably the worst instance of the latter in history. It involved the complete disruption of the behavioral sciences for a period of more than half a century in order to prop up the absurd lie that there is no such thing as human nature. It’s grip on the behavioral sciences hasn’t been completely broken to this day. It’s stunning when you think about it. Whole branches of the sciences were derailed to support a claim that must seem ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent child. Why? How could such a thing have happened? At least part of the answer was supplied by Max Eastman in an article that appeared in the June 1941 issue of The Reader’s Digest. It was entitled, Socialism Doesn’t Jibe with Human Nature.
Who was Max Eastman? Well, he was quite a notable socialist himself in his younger days. He edited a radical magazine called The Masses from 1913 until it was suppressed in 1918 for its antiwar content. In 1922 he traveled to the Soviet Union, and stayed to witness the reality of Communism for nearly two years, becoming friends with a number of Bolshevik worthies, including Trotsky. Evidently he saw some things that weren’t quite as ideal as he had imagined. He became increasingly critical of the Stalin regime, and eventually of socialism itself. In 1941 he became a roving editor for the anti-Communist Reader’s Digest, and the above article appeared shortly thereafter.
In it, Eastman reviewed the history of socialism from it’s modest beginnings in Robert Owen’s utopian village of New Harmony through a host of similar abortive experiments to the teachings of Karl Marx, and finally to the realization of Marx’s dream in the greatest experiment of them all; the Bolshevik state in Russia. He noted that all the earlier experiments had failed miserably but, in his words, “The results were not better than Robert Owen’s but a million times worse.” The outcome of Lenin’s great experiment was,
Officialdom gone mad, officialdom erected into a new and merciless exploiting class which literally wages war on its own people; the “slavery, horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation” so far outdone that men look back to them as to a picnic on a holiday; bureaucrats everywhere, and behind the bureaucrats the GPU; death for those who dare protest; death for theft – even of a piece of candy; and this sadistic penalty extended by a special law to children twelve years old! People who still insist that this is a New Harmony are for the most part dolts or mental cowards. To honest men with courage to face facts it is clear that Lenin’s experiment, like Robert Owen’s, failed.
It would seem the world produced a great many dolts and mental cowards in the years leading up to 1941. In the 30’s Communism was all the rage among intellectuals, not only in the United States but worldwide. As Malcolm Muggeridge put it in his book, The Thirties, at the beginning of the decade it was rare to find a university professor who was a Marxist, but at the end of the decade it was rare to find one who wasn’t. If you won’t take Muggeridge’s word for it, just look at the articles in U.S. intellectual journals such as The Nation, The New Republic, and the American Mercury during, say, the year 1934. Many of them may be found online. These were all very influential magazines in the 30’s, and at times during the decade they all took the line that capitalism was dead, and it was now merely a question of finding a suitable flavor of socialism to replace it. If you prefer reality portrayed in fiction, read the guileless accounts of the pervasiveness of Communism among the intellectual elites of the 1930’s in the superb novels of Mary McCarthy, herself a leftist radical.
Eastman was too intelligent to swallow the “common sense” socialist remedies of the news stand journals. He had witnessed the reality of Communism firsthand, and had followed its descent into the hellish bloodbath of the Stalinist purges and mass murder by torture and starvation in the Gulag system. He knew that socialism had failed everywhere else it had been tried as well. He also knew the reason why. Allow me to quote him at length:
Why did the monumental efforts of these three great men (Owen, Marx and Lenin, ed.) and tens of millions of their followers, consecrated to the cause of human happiness – why did they so miserably fail? They failed because they had no science of human nature, and no place in their science for the common sense knowledge of it.
In October 1917, after the news came that Kerensky’s government had fallen, Lenin, who had been in hiding, appeared at a meeting of the Workers and Soldiers’ Soviet of Petrograd. He mounted the rostrum and, when the long wild happy shouts of greeting had died down, remarked: “We will now proceed to the construction of a socialist society.” He said this as simply as though he were proposing to put up a new cowbarn. But in all his life he had never asked himself the equally simple question: “How is this newfangled contraption going to fit in with the instinctive tendencies of the animals it was made for?”
Lenin actually knew less about the science of man, after a hundred years, than Robert Owen did. Owen had described human nature, fairly well for an amateur, as “a compound of animal propensities, intellectual faculties and moral qualities.” He had written into the preamble of the constitution of New Harmony that “man’s character… is the result of his formation, his location, and of the circumstances within which he exists.”
It seems incredible, but Karl Marx, with all his talk about making socialism “scientific,” took a step back from this elementary notion. He dropped out the factor of man’s hereditary nature altogether. He dropped out man altogether, so far as he might present an obstacle to social change. “The individual,” he said, “has no real existence outside the milieu in which he lives.” By which he meant: Change the milieu, change the social relations, and man will change as much as you like. That is all Marx ever said on the primary question. And Lenin said nothing.
That is why they failed. They were amateurs – and worse than amateurs, mystics – in the subject most essential to their success.
To begin with, man is the most plastic and adaptable of animals. He truly can be changed by his environment, and even by himself, to a unique degree, and that makes extreme ideas of progress reasonable. On the other hand, he inherits a set of emotional impulses or instincts which, although they can be trained in various ways in the individual, cannot be eradicated from the race. And no matter how much they may be repressed or redirected by training, they reappear in the original form – as sure as a hedgehop puts out spines – in every baby that is born.
Amazing, considering these words were written in 1941. Eastman had a naïve faith that science would remedy the situation, and that, as our knowledge of human behavior advanced, mankind would see the truth. In fact, by 1941, those who didn’t want to hear the inconvenient truth that the various versions of paradise on earth they were busily concocting for the rest of us were foredoomed to failure already had the behavioral sciences well in hand. They made sure that “science said” what they wanted it to say. The result was the Blank Slate, a scientific debacle that brought humanity’s efforts to gain self-understanding to a screeching halt for more than half a century, and one that continues to haunt us even now. Their agenda was simple – if human nature stood in the way of heaven on earth, abolish human nature! And that’s precisely what they did. It wasn’t the first time that ideological myths have trumped the truth, and it certainly won’t be the last, but the Blank Slate may well go down in history as the deadliest myth of all.
I note in passing that the Blank Slate was the child of the “progressive Left,” the same people who today preen themselves on their great respect for “science.” In fact, all the flat earthers, space alien conspiracy nuts, and anti-Darwin religious fanatics combined have never pulled off anything as damaging to the advance of scientific knowledge as the Blank Slate debacle. It’s worth keeping in mind the next time someone tries to regale you with fairy tales about what “science says.”