Why the Blank Slate? Let Max Eastman Explain

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.”

Herbert Spencer and Milovan Djilas; a Post Mortem of Communism

Herbert Spencer was one of the most important and influential intellectuals of his day, yet little more than 30 years after his death, Talcott Parsons could ask, “Who now reads Spencer?”  One could cite many plausible reasons for the precipitate decline in interest.  I suspect his thought was too politically loaded at a time of great intellectual ferment in the realm of political ideology.  As a result, he attracted many enemies among those who considered his work incompatible with their own pet theories.  Perhaps the most damaging accusation was that Spencer was a social Darwinist.  The grounds for this charge were flimsy at best, but since Spencer was no longer around to defend himself, it stuck.  There is an interesting discussion of the matter on his Wiki page.

Spencer was not infallible.  For example, though he was a strong evolutionist, he favored a Lamarckian version of the theory over Darwin’s natural selection.  However, our species is not noted for its infallibility, and the fact that Spencer made mistakes is more a reflection of the broad range of his thought than of the caliber of his intellect.  People who never speculate never make mistakes.  Spencer did speculate, and some of his thought was profound indeed.  Robert Ardrey, never one to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others, noticed, pointing out that Spencer coined the terms “code of Amity” and “code of Enmity,” referring to what are now popularly known as in-groups and out-groups, nearly a century before the academic and professional experts in human behavior caught up with him.  There was another subject regarding which, in retrospect, he was a true prophet; his analysis of revolutionary socialism, which later became known as Communism, presented in his introduction to a collection of essays entitled A Plea for Liberty.

Milovan Djilas also knew something about Communism, having been a Communist for a significant part of his adult life, and an influential one at that.  From 1945 until 1953, he was one of the four most powerful men in Tito’s Communist regime in Yugoslavia.  However, Djilas had a strong sense of intellectual honesty, a great drawback for a Communist ruler.  It inspired him to write a series of critical articles in the Yugoslav Party organ, Borba, followed in 1957 by publication of his great classic, The New Class, an indictment of Communism still strongly marked by the author’s tendency to think in terms of the Marxian dialectic.  His final work, The Fall of the New Class, published in English three years after Djilas’ death, and written after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, may be considered his post mortem on his old ideal.  In comparing Spencer’s predictions with Djilas’ documentation of what actually happened, one begins to understand why the former’s contemporaries were so impressed with him.

For example, Spencer pointed out that Communism was anything but “scientific.”  It was merely the speculation of Marx and others reformulated as a system.  That system, however, had never been tested in practice.  In his words,

Iron and brass are simpler things than flesh and blood, and dead wood than living nerve; and a machine constructed of the one works in more definite ways than an organism constructed of the other, – especially when the machine is worked by the inorganic forces of steam or water, while the organism is worked by the forces of living nerve-centers.  Manifestly then, the ways in which the machine will work are much more readily calculable than the ways in which the organism will work.  Yet in how few cases does the inventer foresee rightly the actions of his new apparatus!  Read the patent-list, and it will be found that not more than one device in fifty turns out to be of any service.  Plausible as his scheme seemed to the inventor, one or other hitch prevents the intended operation, and brings out a widely different result from that which he wished.

What, then, shall we say of these schemes which have to do not with dead matters and forces, but with complex living organisms working in ways less readily foreseen, and which involve the cooperation of multitudes of such organisms?  Even the units out of which this re-arranged body politic is to be formed are often incomprehensible.  Everyone is from time to time surprised by others’ behavior, and even by the deeds of relatives who are best known to him.  Seeing, then, how uncertainly one can foresee the actions of an individual, how can he with any certainty foresee the operation of a social structure?

In The Fall of the New Class, Djilas describes what actually did happen when Marx’s “patent” encountered the real world:

 But communism took a vow, so to speak, that all its prophecies, all its ideals, would turn into their diametric opposites just when Communists thought these prophecies and ideals might actually come true.  So it was that with the coming of Communists to power the working class and communism drew apart from one another, became alien.  It did not happen uniformly, and it took various forms.  By and large, this coincided with the metamorphosis of the Party bureaucracy into a privileged, monopolistic stratum of society.  A special elite – the new class.

Spencer had foreseen just this alienation of the workers and emergence of the New Class with uncanny accuracy.  For example,

Already on the continent, where governmental organizations are more elaborate and coercive than here, there are chronic complaints of the tyranny of bureaucracies – the hauteur and brutality of their members.  What will these become when not only the more public actions of citizens are controlled, but there is added this far more extensive control of all their respective daily duties?  What will happen when the various divisions of this vast army of officials, united by interests common to officialism – the interest of the regulators versus those of the regulated – have at their command whatever force is needful to suppress insubordination and act as ‘saviors of society’?  Where will be the actual diggers and miners and smelters and weavers, when those who order and superintend, everywhere arranged class above class, have come, after some generations, to intermarry with those of kindred grades, under feelings such as are operative under existing classes; and when there have been so produced a series of castes rising in superiority; and when all these, having everything in their own power, have arranged modes of living for their own advantage:  eventually forming a new aristocracy far more elaborate and better organized than the old?

Almost uncanny, when one recalls this was written in 1891!  As Djilas put it in retrospect more than a century later,

The transformation of the Party apparatus into a privileged monopoly (new class, nomenklatura) existed in embryonic form in Lenin’s prerevolutionary book Professional Revolutionaries, and in his time was already well under way.  It is just this which has been the major reason for the decay of communism.

Spencer foresaw Stalinism, not as a mere aberration, a form of bureaucratic parasitism that Trotsky fondly hoped the workers would eventually throw off, but as inherent in the nature of the system itself.  Noting the many forms of bureaucratic tyranny already existing under capitalism, he wrote:

What will result from their (the bureaucracy’s) operation when they are relieved from all restraints?…The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views:  holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means.  And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.

One can imagine the Communist true believers, equipped with their batteries of Marxist truism, shaking their heads and smiling at such hyperbolic alarmism.  No doubt they would have found it a great deal less amusing from the later vantage point of the Gulag.  As Djilas put it,

Thus he, Stalin, the greatest Communist – for so everyone thought him save the dogmatic purists and naive “quintessentialists” – the incarnation of the real essence, the real possibilities, of the ideal – this greatest of all Communists, killed off more Communists than did all the opponents of Communism taken together, worldwide… Ideology exterminates its true believers.

A Plea for Liberty, the remarkable little volume in which Spencer set down his sadly unheeded words of warning, is available online, along with his autobiography and many of his other works.  They may be of some interest to readers who are jaded by the latest nuances of the terrorist attack in Benghazi, or bored by the effort of staying up-to-date on how close we are to stumbling over the “fiscal cliff.”

Herbert Spencer