History

Reminiscences of a Middle-Class Radical

A pro-Franco demonstration in Salamanca, Spain, in 1937 (Wikimedia Commons)
The acclaimed author reflects on his experiences of Communism and the conflicts that shaped the 20th century.

Editor’s Note: Fifty years ago today, the great American novelist John Dos Passos, a frequent contributor to National Review, passed away in Baltimore. To honor his legacy, NR is reprinting this, his first essay for the magazine, which originally ran in two parts spread across our January 18, 1956, and February 15, 1956, issues.

Part One

A Summer in Moscow
I  probably didn’t write about friends I made in the Russian theater because I already felt that they were under a shadow. I was afraid something I might say would make their lives more difficult under the regime.

The other inhibition, of course, was the fear of writing something that would be seized on by anti-Soviet propaganda in the West. In those days I was trying to be neutral, above the battle like Goethe.

It was puzzlement more than disillusionment I suffered from. I came away full of admiration for the energy and breadth of the Russian mind. I felt that the Russians were nearer to finding a solution to the strange and horrible world industrial society had produced for mankind than we were in America. Even then I didn’t pretend to like the solution. There must be a better way.

I tried to put that feeling into words: You don’t have to make a decision yet, I kept telling myself. As Communist power grew, that position proved untenable.

How hard it is to write truthfully. Reading over the articles I wrote that summer I keep remembering things I forgot to put in. Why did I forget to put in about the enlarged photographs of Lenin as a baby I saw in the ikon corner in the peasants’ houses instead of the Christ Child? Why did I neglect people’s hints about Stalin? There was a very pleasant actress whom I’ve called Alexandra who had worked with the Art Theater I sometimes took evening walks with in Moscow. She came of the old revolutionary intelligentsia. I shall never forget the look of hate that would come into her face when we’d pass a large photograph of Stalin in a store window. She never spoke. She would just nudge me and look. As the years went on I understood what she meant. Of course in 1928 Stalin had not shown himself yet. He was working from behind the scenes. Trotsky was in exile but there were still people around the theater in Moscow whom their friends introduced half laughingly as Trotskyites. The terror that English journalist was trying to tell me about still lurked in the shadows. It was not yet walking the streets.

And yet, I remember that for absolutely no reason I fell into a real funk for fear they wouldn’t let me leave the last few days I was in Moscow attending to the final passport formalities. Just like every other American, I’d done my best to see the good, but the last impression I came away with was fear, fear of the brutal invisible intricate machinery of the police state. No fear was ever better founded.

Warsaw in those days was no paradise of civil liberties, but I still remember how well I slept in the sleazy bed in the faded hotel I put up at in Warsaw after piling out of the Moscow train. Warsaw was Europe. My last month in Moscow I’d been scared every night.

Dreiser in the Coalfields
The stock-market collapse of 1929 and the partial breakdown of the free-enterprise system of which it was a symptom provided the Marxists with their great I told you so. Things like that didn’t happen in the Soviet Union. You didn’t have to be a Marxist to blame all this misery on the slaphappy greed of the capitalists. Even from the perspective of today, after every effort to eliminate the bogeyman from the picture, it still seems true that the American businessman had proved himself politically a conspicuous failure. For all his feeding at the government trough had not been able to develop the responsible ruling class that Alexander Hamilton looked forward to. Looking back on those years what most stands out is the businessman’s panicky abdication.

The soft-coal industry like many another was on its beam ends. The Communist Party at that time was trying to organize its own trade unions. With their flair for publicity, the Communist leaders induced a number of writers and journalists to serve as a committee to go to the Kentucky coalfields to see for themselves the violence that had met the efforts of Communist-trained organizers to form a union.

Theodore Dreiser, shy, opinionated, sensitive, and aware as an old bull elephant, headed the committee. He looked like a senator, he acted like a senator, and he got himself into a thoroughly senatorial scrape. For all of that there was a sort of massive humanness about him, a self-dedicated disregard of consequences, a sly sort of dignity that earned him the respect of friend and foe alike.

In the tradition of a congressional investigative committee, we settled down at the hotel in Pineville. We heard all the usual stories of violence legal and illegal against labor agitators, pushed a little further than usual in this case by the violent traditions of the Kentuckians. The miners’ soup kitchens had been blown up. There had been gun battles, mountain style, between strikers and company men. As I remember we really tried to hear both sides. The Party members who were trying to direct the course of the proceedings showed a scornful tolerance for our “liberalism.”

“Equity” was the word Dreiser used continually. He wanted equity. Like so many of his words it was a hard one to corner. I had trouble getting a sharp meaning out of it. It led him, strangely, into the Communist camp in later years. I already had a suspicion that this equity meant taking away everything the rich had. We were an ill-educated lot but I had already acquired enough political sophistication to know that wouldn’t make the poor any richer. We had to learn our way as we went. American writers were babes in the woods in those days.

Our little expedition wasn’t without comic relief. With characteristic bravado Dreiser had brought along with him a handsome and well-dressed young woman who certainly was not his wife. She had caught the eye of some of the sheriff’s deputies in Pineville and they had amused themselves stacking toothpicks against the great man’s door after the young woman had entered it rather late one night. The toothpicks were still there in the morning. The sheriff arrested Dreiser at breakfast for infringing some local morals ordinance.

Dreiser, playing so well the part of the pachyderm, seemed completely undisturbed. In court, so I was told later, he confounded everybody by announcing that nothing immoral could have taken place since he was an old man and impotent. I don’t know whether he was telling the truth or lying. I don’t even remember how the case came out. All I remember is the strange look he had of an old bull elephant at bay.

Sometime after we had all left Harlan County a local grand jury indicted several of us under the Kentucky criminal-syndicalism law. When I got back to New York the chairman of the central committee sent for me and asked me to go back and stand trial. I refused. Already I had the feeling that there was something a little too offhand about the way these human engineers were handling the Kentucky miners. There was something about the boss Communist’s sneering tone that made it a little too obvious that he enjoyed making monkeys of the warmhearted liberals.

The miners were even more pawns than we were. A whole series of small incidents in Kentucky had made me feel that the Communists were treating the misery and revolt of the Harlan County miners with the same professional’s sneer. Their scornful attitude towards perfectly sincere IWW and AFL men. The way they handled the cases of the miners in jail, denying help to men who wouldn’t play their game.

Spain First and Last
It’s almost 30 years since I first knew Spain. A few months after graduating from college at a most impressionable period of my life I lived a while in Madrid. The angry beauty of the countryside, the dignity of the people, the paintings of Velasquez and Goya, the prose of Cervantes, the epic of the Cid, and the salty verses of the Archpriest of Hita all hit me at once. Life still conducted according to the ritual of the 17th century gave to every day a quality of theater. As I learned the language I began to feel enormous sympathy for the people of this nation so various and so much themselves, so unaffected by the standardization of the life of our day.

In Spain it was a time of intellectual effervescence. All the currents of 19th-century liberalism seemed to converge in the brittle air of the Castilian plateau. The country was prosperous, though to an American the contrast between brutal wealth and brutal poverty was shocking indeed. There was saving grace in everything being so open and above-board. In the midst of the decay of the old pageantry a future was being prepared. Here all the liturgical phrases of the 19th-century religion of progress, which had seemed hollow and platitudinous to a young man growing up in America in detestation of the Sunday supplements, rang true. The sort of Spaniards who were at home with reading and writing, journalists, lawyers, doctors, architects, felt an immense desire to further the good of mankind the way the men who launched our own American republic had furthered the good of mankind. Progress was their faith. The old monarchy was played out. A second republic was the coming attraction. The ancient dramas of starvation and riches were to be taken off the boards.

These feudal aristocrats who had forgotten the duties of feudal lords, these peacock officers who strutted in such empty boredom through the lobbies of military clubs, these ecclesiastics who had forgotten that humility was a Christian virtue, all these thrones and principalities and powers would soon be turning in their worn-out rules taught them in dark ages past. They were about to be enlightened. They would come back on the stage with the greatest good for the greatest number their order of the day. Every Spaniard would be re-outfitted as a citizen of the modern world. The beggars would learn useful trades, the prostitutes would become thrifty housewives, the bullfighters would take to raising fat steers for the market.

The story of how I went back to Spain in 1937 Is typical of the blundering of well-intentioned American liberals trying to make themselves useful in the world. Ever since the Civil War started I had been working with various friends trying to find ways to induce the Roosevelt Administration to allow the republican government to buy arms in America.

In the end it was decided that a documentary movie of the war would be a way to get the attention of the American public. Money was raised, a brilliant young Dutch director was produced to shoot the picture. A well-known American writer, who also knew and loved the Spanish people, was induced to join me in writing the script.

A few nights before I sailed, Carlo Tresca, who was the editor of a libertarian Italian weekly in New York, took me out to dinner. Carlo Tresca combined the shrewdest kind of knowledge of men and their motives with profound information on the realities of politics he’d acquired in a lifetime of partisan warfare in the anarchist cause. “John,” he told me, “they goin’ make a monkey outa you . . . a beeg monkey.”

How could they? We were to have complete charge of the shooting of the picture.

Carlo laughed in my face. “How can you? When your director is a Communist Party member, when everywhere you go you will be supervised by Party members. Everybody you see will be chosen by the Party. Everything you do will be for the interests of the Communist Party. If the Communists don’t like a man in Spain right away they shoot him.”

Of course Carlo was right.

Brand of the Special Section
One of the best things about my first stay in Madrid back in 1916 was the number of friends I made there. On the train to Toledo one Sunday morning I fell in with a young fellow who was a student at the University. Painting and architecture were my main interests at the time. We found we had many common tastes. Painting and poetry were his. We went to see Greco’s painting of the burial of the Count of Orgaz together and came away fast friends. After he graduated from college and married, he came to America to teach. He was a man of vigorous, skeptical, and inquiring mind. Whenever we happened to be in the same city we saw a great deal of each other. He and his family were back in Spain on a summer vacation when Franco’s revolt exploded. I knew that he had stayed on to see what he could do to help the republican cause.

When I left New York I expected to go to him first. I knew that with his knowledge and taste he would be the most useful man in Spain for the purposes of our documentary film. When I asked for him in Valencia faces took on a strange embarrassment. Behind the embarrassment was fear. No one would tell me where he could be found. When at last I found his wife she told me. He had been arrested by some secret section or other and was being held for trial.

I started on a new round of the officials. All right, if the man was being held for trial, what was he being accused of? I knew that he had a brother who was an army officer on Franco’s side and that members of his father’s family were royalists, but I also knew that there was no possible doubt of his devotion to the cause of the republic.

How about arranging an interview with him so that I could help him with his defense?

Again the runaround, the look of fear, fear for their own lives, in the faces of republican officials. In the end I learned the truth. He had been shot.

The higher-ups at Valencia tried to make me believe that he had been kidnapped and killed by anarchist “incontrollables.” It wasn’t till I got to Madrid that I learned from the chief of the republican counter-espionage service that my friend had been executed by a “special section.” He added that in his opinion the execution had been a mistake and that it was too bad. Spaniards closer to the Communists I talked to said the man had been shot as an example to other officials because he had been overheard indiscreetly discussing military plans in a café. The impression I came away with was that the Russians had him put out of the way because he knew too much about the negotiations between the War Ministry and the Kremlin and was not, from their very special point of view, politically reliable.

Some of my associates in the documentary-film project were disgusted with me for making all these inquiries. What’s one man’s life at a time like this? We mustn’t let our personal feelings run away with us. But how in the world, I asked them, are you to tell what’s going on except by personal experience?

Engineers from Moscow
Remembering those days in Madrid I can still feel the frustration and strain of trying to pick out the truth from amid the tangle of false appearances. There was wonderful courage among ordinary people. It was impossible not to be carried away with admiration for the self-sacrifice of so many men from every part of Europe and America who had thrown their lives into the breach to prevent a Fascist victory. There was the old-fashioned gallantry of the Spaniards. There was the humble stoicism of so many perplexed men and women who were trying to behave honorably toward their own beliefs and at the same time to go on leading their lives in the only way they knew how, to keep their children clothed and fed, to take care of the old people, to keep a roof over their heads. Then there were the ghoulish figures of revolutionary adventurers, the Mexican painter with two pistols in his belt, the men who were carving themselves careers out of these troublous times. And behind it all the feeling of being managed.

Everywhere I went people were calling, and with reason, for a central command. The central command was already there. I can’t remember the name of the Madrid hotel the Russian staff officers occupied. It had an English name. There everything was efficient, at least on the surface. There was the impression of military polish you would get from the general staff of any of the major armies. There was the impression, too, of being with the conquerors in occupied territory. You felt their complete divorce from any feeling for the population that formed the raw material for their human engineering. A feeling so far from sympathy that it was mighty near hatred. The conquerors and the conquered. It was a surprise to find the receptionist a New York girl—one of those fanatical but humdrum faces I’ve been accustomed to see in Communist-run organizations in America. Was this where the do-gooders among the Greenwich Village radicals had been heading?

What I was seeing, I know now, was the taking over of the dying liberal republic by an outpost of international Communism. All I could write was what I saw on the surface.

*    *    *

Part Two

It’s hard to overestimate the revulsion wrought by the First World War in the minds of a generation that had grown up in the years of comparative freedom and comparative peace that opened the century. It’s hard to remember in the middle Fifties today that in those years what little military service there was in America was voluntary, that taxes were infinitesimal, that if you could scrape up the price of a ticket you could travel anywhere in the world except through Russia and Turkey, without saying boo to a bureaucrat. If you wanted to take a job it was nobody’s business but yours and the boss’s. Of course, as the labor people were busily pointing out, if you worked in a sweat shop for a pittance and happened to starve to death in the process it was nobody’s business either. When Woodrow Wilson led the country into the European war, however little we approved this reversal of American tradition, most of us just out of college were crazy to see what war was like. We experienced to the full the intoxication of the great conflagration, though those of us who served as enlisted men could hardly be expected to take kindly to soldiering, to the caste system which made officers a superior breed, or to the stagnation and opportunism of military bureaucracy. Waste of time, waste of money, waste of lives, waste of youth. We came home with the horrors. We had to blame somebody.

The reformers we admired, the Bull Moose people, the Progressives from Wisconsin, Eugene V. Debs, and the old-time Populists, had tended to blame everything that went wrong on malefactors of great wealth. Capitalism was the bogey that was destroying civilization. Cut the businessman’s profits, we said. Production for use. We thrilled to the word cooperative. Industrial democracy was the refrain of our song. In Europe we had picked up some of the slogans of Marxists and syndicalists. We agreed with them that democratic self-government had sold out to capital. Capitalism was the sin that had caused the war; only the working class was free from crime.

Most of us had been brought up in easy circumstances. If we were enlisted men in the Army we found ourselves suddenly instead of top dog, bottom dog. An enlightening experience, but we couldn’t help some cries of pain. We came home with the feeling that bottom dog must be boss. We must restore self-government at home. If the people had had their way none of these disasters would have happened.

The Revolt of Bohemia
Greenwich Village met us at the dock. American Bohemia was in revolt against Main Street, against the power of money, against Victorian morals. Freedom was the theme. Freedom from hard collars, from the decalogue, from parental admonitions. For Greenwich Village art and letters formed an exclusive cult. The businessman could never understand. It was part of the worldwide revolt of artists and would-be artists and thinkers and would-be thinkers against a society where most of the rewards went to people skillful in the manipulation of money. The would-be artists and writers felt out of it. The revolt of Bohemia was the last eddy in the ebb of the romantic flood that had flowed in various great waves through the literature of 19th-century Europe. When artists and writers found it hard to make themselves a niche in industrial society they repudiated the whole business. Greenwich Village was their refuge, the free commune of Montmartre on American soil. Les bourgeois à la lanterne.

Greenwich Village wanted freedom and so did the working class. Only the people who worked in factories wanted freedom from certain very definite things, especially from low pay and bad conditions of work. They wanted to be treated as first-class citizens the way businessmen were. Greenwich Villagers, mostly the sons and daughters of professional people, clergymen and lawyers and doctors, felt a sudden kinship with the working class. Of all strata of society only the artists and writers and the people who worked with their hands were pure. Together they would overturn the businessman and become top dog themselves. From the alliance between the trade unions and Greenwich Village the American radical was born.

The war had left an aftermath of ruin. Dislocated populations were starving and sick. The apocalyptic vision of capitalism’s collapse that had haunted the working people of Europe was coming true. Revolution was the cure. Only a complete new order could bring health and cleanness back into the world. It was ordained by the march of progress. Only the bankers and industrialists and the old feudal hierarchies stood in the way of the millennium. In Russia the Soviets had seized power. To the artists and writers of Greenwich Village the Soviets were a New England town meeting on a larger scale. Self-government come to life again. Through the Soviets the people who did the work of the world would conduct their own affairs. War was ruining civilization. Everywhere the plain people wanted peace. Only the bankers and businessmen had profited by the war. Merchants of death. Down with the bankers and businessmen. With the working class in power, peace would be assured.

From sometime during the spring of 1926 or from the winter before a recollection keeps rising to the surface. The protest meeting is over and I’m standing on a set of steps looking into the faces of the people coming out of the hall. I’m frightened by the tense righteousness of the faces. Eyes like a row of rifles aimed by a firing squad. Chins thrust forward into the icy night. It’s almost in marching step that they stride out into the street. It’s the women I remember most, their eyes searching out evil through narrowed lids. There’s something threatening about this unanimity of protest. They are so sure they are right.

I agree with their protest: I too was horrified by this outrage. I’m not one either to stand by and see injustice done. But do I agree enough? A chill goes down my spine. Do they frighten me because I’m really among the oppressors, because there is some little mustard seed of doubt in my mind about the value of their protest? Maybe I’m not sure enough that I’m on the right side. Evil is so various.

Whenever I remember the little scene I tend to turn it over in my mind. Why did my hackles rise at the sight of the faces of these good people coming out of the hall?

Was it a glimpse of the forming of a new class conformity that like all class conformities was bent on riding the rest of us?

The Marxists who are so skillful in the detection and the isolation of heresies used to inveigh against one particular heresy that pleased me particularly. They called it American exceptionalism. During these years of mounting protest against the way things were going in America that label was my refuge.

The Communists had an answer: revolution according to Marx. In this country they were then a small sect striving without too much success to form their own unions. Their strength was that they had a definite set of convictions they held to with religious fervor. Their movement offered men and women who subjected themselves to the discipline dedicated careers, the self-righteous assurance that they were better than other men, and that sense of participation in history that takes the place of religion for the Marxist. Their weakness was that they had no way of appealing to the desire for personal independence and to the basic creed that there should be fair play for all, which, thank God, is just as strong among American working people as it is in the rest of the population.

Outside of the foreign-language groups, still subject to the millennial illusions they had brought with them from Europe, they weren’t making much headway in the labor movement. Their great success lay, as it does today, in the skill with which they managed to direct the thinking of half-educated and inexperienced young people among Americans of middle-class origin.

Big Government Grows
The political act I have most regretted in my life was voting for Franklin D. Roosevelt for a third term. There seemed no alternative at the time. I certainly had misgivings. Now I know how wrong I was.

On his first reelection in 1936 I had voted for him with enthusiasm. It was the year of his greatest glamour. The New Deal in its early days had brought the country back to life. Even in the late Twenties, when my political thinking came nearest to the Marxist theory of predestined revolution, I had consoled myself with the heresy of “American exceptionalism.” Here was a president who was a skillful enough political prestidigitator to prove that America was exceptional. The financial regulators of the economy had been shifted from Wall Street to Washington without anybody’s firing a shot.

The federal government became a storehouse of power that dwarfed the fabled House of Morgan that had been the bogey of our youth. When you add to the coercive powers of government, the power of the purse and a standing army, you have a situation that would have alarmed even the most authoritarian statesmen of our early history. The trouble with immense political power of course is that no man is good enough to wield it. It’s the fear of the loss of power that lets the evil in. Consciously or unconsciously, Roosevelt could find no other way of consolidating the vast power — a hundredfold greater than that of any president before him — that the success of the New Deal measures brought him, than by leading the country into war. “War,” Randolph Bourne wrote many years ago, “is the health of the state.”

There may have been no way for us to keep out of the war in Europe but there was no excuse for the way we went into it, or for the insane lack of statesmanlike foresight with which the war was conducted from Washington.

In spite of all my telling myself it was my business to stay home, before long I found myself climbing into a war correspondent’s uniform. I knew that the people who would really tell about the war were the young men and possibly the young women who were undergoing it, but the temptation just to take a look was too strong.

A war correspondent in World War Two led a delightful life. He could go almost anywhere just by expressing the wish. The Army and Navy transport systems were his magic carpet. All the services were keen for public relations. I occasionally wondered what the enlisted men thought of me when I went around to see them fresh from the comforts of the officers’ clubs. Poor devils, they were remarkably civil.

I found the young people in the services immensely appealing, but so much milder than the young men I’d known in the European war. I missed the high spirit, the feeling of crazy adventure, and yet the young men of this war had the whole world for their sphere. It didn’t seem to interest them much. In the European war we sang all the time. Nobody made up any songs anymore.

The Pacific was a revelation. Everybody had always told me that one of the worst things about American society was the crude way we discriminated against people of colors other than white. In Hawaii even under the dislocations of wartime I had a glimpse of a community where relations between the various races had taken a most unexpected turn. At the university there seemed to be no racial discrimination at all. Stratifications did exist, but not those that fitted in with the preconceptions of the New York radicals. The wealthy white offspring of the early missionaries seemed to be at the top. Then came the rare native Hawaiians, then the various riffraff of white newcomers from the continent, then the Chinese with their skill in amassing money. The Japanese made up the lower-middle class. The Portuguese, my people, who were the latest comers, were bottom dog. On the whole these islands seemed to be a museum of successful accommodation between different races and cultures. All anybody had ever told me about it before I got there was the wicked exploitation of labor by the sugar and pineapple kings. Our record in the few territories outside the United States where we have had to deal with mixed and various races deserves a better press than it has had. In some ways it is unique in modern history.

Secretary Forrestal
Another prejudice the Pacific cleared out of my mind was my enlisted man’s prejudice against professional Army officers. Secretary James Forrestal had said during my short interview with him in Washington that the two things that had surprised and heartened him most had been the deep traditional selfless patriotism of the old-line Army and Navy men, and the fact that Americans could produce military brains. I began to understand what he meant. I came home with a deep respect for many of the professionals of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. The two great American inventions of the war, the floating base and the amphibious landing, were the work of no mean intellects.

It’s hard to describe the immense lift it gave you to feel that at last, in spite of the petty bickerings and the false moves so costly in lives that seem unavoidable in wartime, you were among fellow citizens who were coping with new situations. It was only by coping with new situations, and coping with them fast, that we could preserve the essentials of our civilization in peace as well as in war. “We’ll find the brains for the postwar problems too,” Forrestal had said so jauntily. Maybe we would.

Forrestal’s was one of the great organizing minds behind the military victories. No man has ever been broken by overwork. It is frustration, disillusionment, and despair that shatters a man’s will to live. He had found the military brains. It was discovering he couldn’t “find the brains for postwar problems too” that broke him. He was one of the few men in public office who saw the Abominable Snowmen. Long before the fighting stopped he understood that the peace would be a greater disaster for American aims than Pearl Harbor. As secretary of defense he beat his spirit to pieces against the massive incomprehension of the men he had to deal with in the government until in the agony of a ruined mind, that night in the Bethesda Naval Hospital, he could find no way to go on living.

The soldier coming home from the wars has always had a tough time. The fact of killing has carried a sort of catharsis with it. The fighting man’s mind isn’t distorted by hatred as the stay-at-home civilian’s is. He usually comes home with a commonsense outlook on what he’s been through. Though in the first war the nearest I had gotten to combat was driving an ambulance, I can remember very clearly how hard the returned doughboy found it to talk to civilians. We found people back home still all hopped up with German atrocities and brave little Belgium. Their thinking was frozen in the mold of the inter-allied propaganda. We knew that atrocities were universal in war. We tried to explain how the fighting man felt. It got so that to keep out of arguments we only talked frankly among ourselves. In that case a reaction set in. In two or three years the wartime psychology had melted away and the returned soldier, against loud opposition we mustn’t forget, was allowed to have his say.

Entrenched “Protest”
I found myself equally at cross purposes with the stay-at-homes when I got back from World War Two. Those of us who protested against the abdication of the American will to victory were talked down whenever we raised our voices. The wartime obsessions, though they never reached the depth of hysteria of the wartime obsessions of the first war, lingered on in the public mind year after year.

The language of protest of the old-time Greenwich Village radicals had become the language of an entrenched political party. Many an old radical had the amusing and somewhat alarming experience of finding himself hoist by his own petard. We had run mad for government ownership of this and that and for trade unions and for a minimum wage and unemployment relief because we thought those things would increase the happiness and dignity of the majority of men. A great many of the things we had argued for had come to pass under the New Deal in the United States and under the Labor government in England. They had become established institutions flanked by all the vested interests that fact implies. When some of us, still applying the standards we had learned in trying to defend Sacco and Vanzetti and the Harlan miners, the Spanish Republicans and a hundred other less-publicized victims of oppression of one sort or another, started looking with a critical but not necessarily unfriendly eye at the new institutions, we got a good shellacking from the defenders of the established order for our pains. The businessman, who used to defend himself with such fury, was now fair game, but you criticized a socialized institution at your own risk.

If some of us, who had seen the Abominable Snowmen, pointed out that the Communist Party was a greater danger to individual liberty than all the old power-mad bankers and industrialists from hell to breakfast, we were promptly written down in the bad books as reactionaries.

The Institutional Mind
In 1927 President Lowell of Harvard, a kindly man of unblemished private life, put his name to the report that sent Sacco and Vanzetti to their death. To his way of thinking an anarchist or Communist — he never managed to get the difference between them through his head — was an agitator capable of any crime. He certainly would have been horrified if you had told him that, in performing what he considered a painful civic duty, he was merely acting in defense of capitalist vested interests. He was applauded for his courage by most of the college presidents of his day.

Today you find that the vested interest is government. Where in my day we used to wisecrack that the colleges were geared to turn out football players and bond salesmen, today you could say that they are turning out football players and bureaucrats. The college man is educated to identify himself with government. I mean with institutional authority. Government, we must remember, has many phases. There is the United States Government; and then there are a host of other governments in fact if not in name, the office forces of the corporations that govern production and the office forces of the trade unions that govern the workingman. The man who values the good opinion of his fellows today is pained by any pert remark that questions the right of the men who sit in the offices to run the lives of the rest of us.

Institutions of learning eternally form the sacred ark in which the ruling dogmas of any particular era are protected from the criticisms of the profane. Remember the Sorbonne in the great days of the canon law. A historian today could make out a very good case for sampling the opinions of college presidents as a way of uncovering the mentality of whatever ruling class is emerging. Since the business of a college president is to raise money, he has to be the type of man who will appeal to those who control the available funds. Forty years ago he had to be congenial with the individual capitalists of the day. Now the money, even when it has the names of individual fortunes still attached to it, is in the hands of institutions. So the college presidents of our day have to have the institutional mentality. How can they help feeling tender toward socialized institutions, whatever form these may take?

The institutional mind drifts naturally into concepts of socialism, which, after all, only means a society run from one central office. The odd tenderness toward Communism and Communist causes, that seems to be felt by a good many men of the foundations and colleges, might be explained along the same lines. Communism is the most vigorous form of control from a central office that exists in the world today.

If the office workers who man these institutions were even neutral in the battle to dislodge the Communists from strategic positions so many of them wouldn’t discharge their ire upon the anti-Communists instead of on the Communists, now would they?

Isn’t it possible that the same sort of new ruling class that reached power by violent means in the Soviet Union has reached power by peaceful means in this country and England? The New Deal revolution took the management of the economy out of the hands of the capitalist. Revolutions, even though they are brought about by popular pressure, often end by installing some new group in power. Today we are more and more governed, instead of by the old-fashioned politicians, by people who are adept at institutional manipulation. We haven’t quite found the terms that describe them exactly. James Burnham took a fling at a definition when he wrote of “the managerial revolution.” When we like our new rulers we call them public servants. When we are mad at them we call them bureaucrats. I’m not quarreling with their right to administer. It will be the business of self-government to see that they remain servants of the public, of all the public.

Nobody needs to be told that in atomic energy the rulers of the world have a destructive force in their hands which is virtually absolute. The scientists have handed them over Jove’s thunderbolt. The only way to keep a rein on that power is by enforcing the scheme of ethics that has grown up out of Christianity among people of self-governing institutions. The ordinarily decent impulses the ordinary man learned at his mother’s knee are our last line of defense against the wickedness of over-weening power at home and abroad. In the end the traditional ethics will be the spearhead of the attack that will bring us victory. The Communist cult of power, plain, cannot give men the happiness that they get from conforming to the rules of live and let live, of do unto others as you would be done by, which have been built up through ages of trial and error.

The defections from the Communist world have proved this. Men and women risk their lives daily in search of a moral order based on independent judgment and individual responsibility. The events of the last ten years have proved that a solid scheme of ethics is the most practical thing in the world. Freedom without morals is a negative thing. What we must fight for is the freedom to do right.

John Dos Passos (1896–1970) was an acclaimed American novelist and frequent contributor to National Review.

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