The Bugaboo of Communism
WE ARE TOO INDIVIDUALISTIC
By GEORGE BARTON CUTTEN, President of Colgate University
Convocation Address delivered at Colgate University, September 24, 1941
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 44-49.
MAKING the world safe for democracy is not included today in the world-wide want lists. In most countries one could not sell the idea. Sell it! You couldn't give it away. A few years ago we were standing with open arms welcoming one nation after another into the democratic fraternity. Today we are trying to defend our own country against the incursion of foreign and antagonistic ideologies, and some of us would not be surprised if a native fifth column were undermining our democratic foundations. Is our democratic framework really a little wobbly? I wonder!
Political ideologies seem now to be running in threes: in addition to our own much prized democracy, there are two others—communism and dictatorship. Of the three, communism is a pure ideology, i.e., it does not exist anywhere as a practical government, but examples of dictatorship and democracy, the latter considerably attenuated, are to be found as governmental patterns.
A communist is a socialist without a sense of humor. Russia was supposed by those who did not live there, and a few who did, to be communistic. It certainly qualified in lacking humor, but practically, while professing to be communistic, it has always been ruled by a bureaucracy or a dictator, and in recent years has leaned so increasingly toward the latter form that it is now almost wholly that. As an iridescent dream communism ranks high, but as a working society it has never reached Class B. Perhaps because it is purely theoretical, it is supposed to have almost arrived at full term in the minds of many college professors. I am sometimes asked if we have any communists on our college faculty, and I have to reply that I have occasionally heard rumors of such, but careful investigation does not reveal that any of them are sharing their salaries, and until they do I am not worried. In our climate, with the thermometer 50° below zero, ideological flights get a rude shock from an impending coal bill. With all apologies to the coal dealers, let me say that that brings you down to solid rock.
We do not have to guess about the outcome of communistic experiments, for we have had many during the past two thousand years or more, and every one of them has run up the white flag. Sometimes, when presided over by an able dictator, who enforced the rules with a rod of iron, one seemed to work, but it always required imposed force to dominate it, and, at best, never lasted long. Take that well-known example in Jerusalem described in the Acts of the Apostles. There they had communism with all the side dishes. No one could call anything his own, but there was a common pool and each one dipped in and helped himself to what he wanted. It was ideal, beautiful, unselfish, generous,—well, it was angelic, that's what it was. Celestial diet proved to be a little strong for sinful men, and along came Ananias and Sapphira to try to beat the game. We don't know all the details which led to the collapse, but we do know that a little later Paul was out in the provinces passing the hat for the Jerusalem saints. Altruistic experiments often produce economic frustration.
What I am trying to say is that fear of successful communism is sheer emotional waste. Communism is a human impossibility. Those who refuse to read history or to study psychology may cause some confusion by trying the experiment for themselves, but they are certain to have a rude awakening from their dream, and I'll tell you why: the immediate or personal acquisitive instinct is too strong to permit communism to function for any length of time. Ananias and Sapphira are not isolated examples of humanity,—all of us are of the same stuff, probably not following exactly their pattern, but responding to the same acquisitive instinct. That instinct has been bred into us for the past million years, and you cannot argue it out of us in five minutes or in five centuries. Don't worry about communism: it is purely a mental ptomaine but never a political danger.
It should not be thought that this communistic experiment during apostolic times was the original one—far from it. Undoubtedly many similar experiments antedated Christianity, and the old-fashioned, paternal, nomadic tribes of the Hebrews were not far removed from this form. The Essenes, a sect of the Jews which flourished during Jesus' time, held property in common, and anyone joining them had to contribute his private property. Down through the years since, most communistic experiments have been conducted by religious sects, and have had a religious rather than a political significance and flavor. One need only point to the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit and the Anabaptists as examples.
For the past three centuries America has been the Mecca of organizations of this kind, owing to its freedom of worship which guaranteed a lack of all interference and persecution. Many sects which originated in other countries moved to America to consummate their organizations. In some cases the leader with a few followers came to our shores and depended upon converts here to increase the number and prestige of his following. Etienne Cabet, a Frenchman, founded the Jearian community at Corning, Iowa; Joseph Baumeler, a German, founded the Separatists of Zoar, Ohio; George Rapp, a German, founded the Harmonists of Economy, Pa.; Johann Conrad Beissed, a German, founded the Order of the Solitary at Ephrata, Pa.; and Dr. Keil, a German, was the founder of the communities of Bethel, Mo. and Aurora, Oregon. The Amana communities of Iowa were founded by a German sect, the Inspirationalists. The story of the Shakers in America led by Ann Lee is well known to all.
Examples of communism of a political and economic character are not wanting. More's Utopia had some influence in this direction, and while the "levelers" of Cromwell's time have sometimes been considered communistic, their demands could probably be rivalled by any person of democratic tendencies of these days, and certainly exceeded by the New Dealers. The inhabitants of Jamestown, Va. were practically communists from 1606-1611, and the presence of commons in some of our early cities, of which Boston Common is a good example, shows something of the early tendency or necessity in this country.
Robert Owen's experiment in New Harmony, Indiana, is probably the outstanding example in America. The Harmonists settled here in 1805, but sold out to Owen in 1824, moving to Economy, Pa. Owen founded his community, inviting as settlers "the industrious and well disposed of all nations." Many people came, most of whom were not included within the limits of the invitation; within a few months the village became a scene of idleness and revelry. Owen, who had gone to England, returned and took charge, but soon disagreements arose and the experiment was abandoned.
In discussing communism in America, one just naturally thinks of Fourierism as advocated by Horace Greeley, Albert Brisbane, Charles A. Dana and others between 1840 and 1850. Greeley used the columns of the New York Tribune to promote it. It was not strictly communistic, but more of a cooperative enterprise. Thirty-four phalanxes were started, of which Brook Farm near Boston was the most famous. The North American Phalanx in New Jersey was the most successful, lasting from 1843 to 1856. More recent attempts to establish communistic ventures have been tried, and others will undoubtedly appear. So far they have been short lived, internal dissensions usually accounting for their ruin.
For the past few years Russia has been Exhibit A in the communistic display, but it required a dictator to trim the window. Of course, a dictator can have any kind of window dressing that suits his fancy. Some dictators like the thrill of an unsheathed sword and give orders boldly, unadorned. In Russia, however, the dictatorship put on a communistic show. Many people were easily fooled, and, watching the show, forgot who was pulling the wires. In other countries the dictatorship puts on a democratic show—or, shall I say, a democratic convention? But this is the point to be noted, no communism ever received even passing notice unless back of it, directing and enforcing it, there was an outstanding personality who was, in effect, a dictator. This is true whether it was a small, religious community like the Oneida Community, or a large federation of states like Russia; it is the dictator, not the community, who is the political force, and with whom we have to reckon.
Even to those who still think of Russia as communistic, Russia is the best argument against communism. Those who have been permitted to enter that country and visit specially selected show places have returned not very enthusiastic concerning the Russian system as an overwhelming economic success, and reports that have filtered out concerning districts not on exhibition have been very discouraging. Of course, they did not have much to start with, but compared with advances in capitalistic countries, at a comparable level of development, Russian progress has been very meagre. The chief indictment against Russia as a communistic country is that after years of planning and evangelistic propaganda and stimulation, the rulers were forced to appeal to the personal acquisitive instinct, by a differentiation of wages, in order to increase production and to get anything accomplished. Additional changes in Russia during the past year are even more pregnant with meaning. The arbitrary increase of forced hours of labor with no increase in pay, the restriction, if not abolition, of free education, and the restoration of absolute authority to military officers rob the term "comrade" of any except ironical significance. These actions are not only an admission of defeat, but should prove to be a powerful anesthetic to misguided enthusiasts who contemplate further attempts to advance the communistic doctrine elsewhere.
I know the picture which usually presents itself to the citizens of a democratic country when they think of dictatorship and communism: it is that of two husky, predatory giants stalking the world, and whichever sees a nation first grabs it. That is not what I see: it looks to me like Texas and Rhode Island walking along together. The little fellow is entertaining and somewhat amusing; he is frequently in rags, or, occasionally, where he poses as a college professor, he may be well dressed, but in either case he's not a bit dangerous and I'd not waste my time on him. It's the big dictator fellow with the big club who scares me. All through the centuries, while communism was proving itself a dud, he has shown what he could do, and today he's the menace. He has invaded government, business, labor unions, the church, and some say he has even sought a college president's chair, and I know he's the fellow to watch.
It is interesting to note the remarks made concerning the leaders of the different communities and the power which they exerted to maintain the communistic camouflage. Joseph Baumeler, of the Separatists, was known outside the community as "King Baumeler" on account of the autocratic control which he maintained for forty years. After his death the community began to decline. George Rapp, of the Harmonists, is reported to have been a large man of "great strength of character"; he retained his position as leader until his death at ninety years of age. Dr. Keil, of Bethel and Aurora, was a man of "personal magnetism and power"; he was president of his organization and, with his few assistants, selected by himself, managed everything. Ann Lee was in undisputed control of the Shakers during her life, and there was no doubt about the "leadership" of John Humphrey Noyes at Oneida. The community at New Harmony flourished as long as Robert Owen remained there to direct it, but when he left for England trouble began. Communism never yet has governed an organization of human beings, nor can it; dictatorship has always been the controlling power. Communism is a word used to bamboozle us, but really means nothing in revealing who is boss; the inquest on these communities renders this indisputable verdict.
Two interesting sidelights on these religious communities may be noted in passing. The leader, who assumes the status of dictator, may have been so selected or confirmed by visions, revelations, dreams or similar psychological phenomena. Thisstamps the divine impress upon him and designates him summa cum laude. Henceforth his judgment cannot be questioned and his command cannot be gainsaid. The other observation is that the dead hand of the leader may maintain power for years. Even if he has not committed to writing orders or directions for the guidance of the community which bear divine sanction, the communications passed from mouth to mouth may suffice—if sufficiently impressive—to control the community for some time after the leader has passed from earthly responsibilities.
The indictment against the social order, so popular at the present time, is out of the same bag, as is all tinkering with the environment to cure inherent evils. It is usually proposed as a substitute for hard work—and there is no substitute. College students become very much excited about library hours or times of vacation or class schedules, being very sure that if some proposed change were made, failures would be eliminated and all D students would immediately be catapulted into class A. What happens? Well, nothing happens. The A students make their A's regardless of times or schedules, and the lazy and the deficient students are still lazy and deficient—tinkering has not changed the inner man, and until that takes place there is no hope. Communism does not make stupid people bright, bad people good, or lazy people industrious. It is more likely to have the opposite effect, if, indeed, environment has any influence.
The indictment against the social order is also the last refuge and the glowing opportunity of the social reformer, especially when personal blame can be attached to the scheme of things as they are. We are now heating a poker for the ogre called capitalism, and it's lots of fun. Of course, the capitalist denies any knowledge of the crime, but that is only additional proof of his guilt. It does not require the eye of a witch to recognize that the social order, called capitalism, is not, or could it possibly be, the result of premeditated wickedness on the part of any person or persons, but it is the consequence of age long trial and error which we call natural selection. The critics of the capitalists are endowed with the same instincts as their victims, and probably an examination of their lives would show them to be equally culpable. If it is a heinous crime for the capitalist to satisfy his instinct of acquisition and self assertion and competition on the stock exchange, because he prefers that form of satisfaction, it may be equally reprehensible for his critic to satisfy the same instincts by the acquisition of historical data, proposed leadership of the masses, and the stinging, if not very accurate, diatribe against his victim, because he prefers that form of satisfaction.
Says one critic, "The glaring inequalities that surround us on every side are hardly capable of overstatement." Well, perhaps! But he certainly makes a brave effort in that direction. The most glaring inequalities are those of hereditary ability and adaptability in which nature abounds, and a change in the social order is not likely to eliminate those. Nature provides no basis for communism, for communism aims at an equality on a mediocre level, and nothing could be more disastrous to the race than such a consummation. Fortunately, it is not in the range of possibility. A communistic world would be one in which personal ambition would be jettisoned, and in which there would be no opportunity to excel. Its accomplishment would be the death knell of progress. Even the social reformer and agitator would be melted into the general group, and his ego satisfaction would have to find some other outlet. Well, that might make even communism palatable.
The inequalities referred to are not recognized and resented by those supposed sufferers, but by certain agitators presumably on their behalf. Any who resent inequalities are on their way to eliminate them. Wild promises to those too stupid to detect the wildness are the cause of unrest. The so-called worker does not feel the need imputed to him, he does not understand the plans prepared for him, he does not comprehend the philosophy ascribed to him; the only thing with which he is concerned is the galaxy of promises of wealth and ease made by those who try to make political capital out of his delusions.
The greatest mistake of the social reformers is the over simplification of the problem and the cure. This is a complex world, and simple panaceas, except as comprehensive general laws, do not function. If we only could change the world by changing the social order! We have to go back of that,—we must change the fundamental human nature, and that's some task. The "liberation of the human spirit" cannot be accomplished by a change in the social order, notwithstanding all the promises to that effect; it depends on the personal equation. "Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage." Liberty is not something imposed from without, but something originating from within. If communism were a possibility, it would, in itself, be sterile for the liberty loving.
Every social reformer has much to say about justice, and it is upon this that he founds his Utopia. His aim is always to eliminate injustice. He usually delegates to himself the sole right to define both these words, but never defines them. The present order always swarms with injustice, the proposed order always establishes justice. Communism is no exception to this rule. However, in practice it is usually impossible to detect any justice according to anyone's definition, including the communists. Justice, according to most reformers, includes the violent wrenching of rewards away from the industrious and the efficient and the bestowal of these upon the lazy and the useless. This is a definition of justice even with a social prefix which, so far, I have been unable to find in any dictionary.
The hardest lesson for us to learn is this: society can never be reconstructed until its individual members are reconstructed. That is slow work, but it is sure work,—nature has taught us that. Nature's highest ambition seems to be to produce one individual superior to the rest—that leaven will leaven the whole lump. We cannot wait for that, we want to reform people wholesale. What is the character of the reform we seek? Are we trying to make it possible for each individual to employ a half hour profitably? Oh, no! We are trying to make it easy for each one to waste a whole day painlessly. Progress, you are defining in terms of comfort, ease, indolence and torpidity. You're wrong! That's not progress. Progress must be sired by a different breed. Work, perseverance, discomfort and pain—these are the strains from which progress arises. That is true whether we are speaking of progress in the individual or in the race—for race progress comes only through the individual.
If communism were possible it would be a rapid step toward degeneration: fortunately, nature has barricaded the road. Robert Owen invited to New Harmony "the industrious and well disposed of all nations." If they had accepted, his scheme could not have failed, they'd do the impossible and make a success of anything. But they had jobs and were making things hum where they were—New Harmony had no attraction for them! The ones who accepted were the lazy, the misfits, the ne'er-do-wells—they were looking for the ease and indolence which communistic schemes promised. They wanted abundance purchased by other peoples' labor.
How has nature blocked communism? Let me answer it again, and underline it. Eons before man had completed histortuous journey through the lower forms and emerged on two feet, by the very rules of survival certain necessary reactions were being fixed into the pattern of life. Any individual who survived could not escape them, or, if he did, he and his offspring were later obliterated from the face of the earth. We call these fixed reactions instincts. Not the least of these was the compulsion to seize anything of value by teeth, talons, or hands and to appropriate it to one's own use, and, if necessary, to fight to obtain it, and to struggle to retain it. These two instincts, which are still strong and compelling, we call, in the refined state which civilization demands, the acquisitive and the combative instincts. Don't be misled—they are just as strong in us today as they were one million years ago, although their expression may take a different form. The change in the object of these instincts is the only modification that intelligence has been able to make—we no longer stalk the forest to pounce upon unwary prey, nor do we seize a maiden and forcibly carry her away to another tribe, but the strife is still for existence and mates. We are not particularly interested in the good of the community so much as we are in our own personal well-being—or, perhaps we should say, we are only interested in the good of the community when that ministers to our immediate personal well-being.
Of course there are other instincts which seem to counteract this strong one of acquisition, principally the family one, and communism is thus possible in a family, if the family is not too large. Here, again, it is more likely to be successful if the parents take the place of the dictator—the uncontrolled children may find the acquisitive instinct too insistent, and combat ensues. By and large, the big question in everyone's mind is, what's in it for me? Civilization tries to disguise this by certain rules and conventions, but it's there just the same, and that's why communism bogs down. In most people, remote advantage is not attractive, we usually want what we want, and we want it now.
The what's-in-it-it-for-me philosophy is revealed by the people who are flirting with communism—the give-me class. Aren't they the keen intellectuals who have thought the matter through and have come to the rational conclusion that communism belongs in the top drawer? Well, not exactly, brother. They have never been distinguished for excessive cerebral activity. They are the ones who are just learning to add and to divide, and have made the fascinating discovery that if all the savings of the industrious and the frugal were added together, and then apportioned according to the number of the population, it would give the shiftless and the thriftless so much apiece. They are the ones who want to divide your raiment among them and for your vesture cast lots. They are the ones who substitute desires for thought, and your hard earned plenty for their easy going lack. Once in a while you hear of some person with a ticklish conscience who divides his money, but he is never a communist, and it occurs so seldom that he finds his name in the right hand column of the front page. When the communist has your possessions divided and has seized his portion, he no longer sees the advantage of communism but fears some other potential communist will ask him to share his loot.
Well, if communism is an impossibility why all this dither? Why not let them try it and discover its impracticability? Very good, if that would settle it. It has been tried and has always failed, but that does not seem to settle it. What is there about it which makes it so insistent? One writer sums up for the Russian communism as follows: "Communism has made its way by its idealism and not its realism, by its spiritual promise, not its materialistic prospect. It is a creed in which there is intellectual error, moral blindness, social perversity." This could as well be affirmed of every dementia praecox patient in the wards of the state hospital. I do not believe the writer intended to class them together, but he could.
Well, there you have it: its appeal is idealistic even if not feasible. It looks so well on paper when we leave out the instinctive elements, and seems, when disguised by ideals and wishes and hopes, to be the realization of a wonderful dream. If we had communism everyone would have to work only a few minutes a day, all the results of our labor would be divided equally, no one would be in want, everybody would be interested in everybody else and the world would be a heaven on earth! There would be no quarrels, no injustice, no competition, no misery! My! but that would be great! Um, perhaps; but as monotonous as perpetual sunshine, or a diet of molasses candy. Don't worry, it's morning again, and the dream fades—it cannot be a part of our program. We do recognize oppression, we do see injustice, we do meet misery, and we do experience trouble, and we'd like to see them annihilated, but communism is not the way.
A second factor in the appeal is a certain religious fervor born of altruism. We become one with all our fellows, we accept vicarious suffering as a part of our program, and all bear one another's burdens. In taking our place with the oppressed and the down trodden it is a purely selfish attitude, for it simply satisfies an individual emotional need but may destroy any practical aid. The very sympathy, for which we give ourselves such a resounding slap on the back, may so warp our judgment as to prevent us from taking any steps toward rendering effective help to remedy the situation. It is wonderful to be an evangelist with a new gospel and to draw many souls starved for emotional experience into your fold! The fact that the communist heaven is lined with brimstone and smells smokey does not seem to be an important fact and is certainly no deterrent to such fanaticism.
A third reason why communism appeals to a certain class of people is closely connected with the last. It is this; it furnishes an outlet for the adventurous spirit—a much needed requirement today. In former days young men with an adventurous urge could go west and become cowboys, or go east and run away to sea. Now these outlets of physical adventure are no longer available. Later, business adventures were somewhat exciting when a person risked his all and had to make good. It was sink or swim and no favors. Now, in these days of social security, if a young man tries to enter the water in the business world he finds the pond so cluttered with his companions floating on government inner tubes that there is no room to take a stroke. If he does find clear water there are so many government restrictions that he dares not enter. What shall his adventurous spirit do? Communism presents itself, and with the carelessness of youthful idealism the young may embrace it eagerly. They are warned against it, but that only increases the adventure. It leads nowhere, but the journey into the unknown and the uncertain adds spice to the trip: opposition only increases the thrill. Reason has no part in the process, argument only adds to the heat. It is purely an emotional adventure and is exciting while it lasts. Of course, the next morning, in the light of cold facts, it is difficult to explain.
Add to this a fourth element and you get a better comprehension of the whole story. The proposition of capturing the world in the manner that the proletarian dictatorship trains its advocates is big, it's unusual, and it's secret. All these elements have their appeal. Apart from emphasizing one's self importance, a secret is an additional factor which satisfies the acquisitive instinct. The so-called secret societies have capitalized this. Of course, the secrets are of little or
no value. How do I know when I don't belong to any? I know because anything of value cannot be kept secret. But the idea of being in the inner circle and of having the special privilege of knowing something that someone else does not know is always attractive. Well, the combination allures the unwary, but it is not communism.
Fighting communism is jousting with a wraith, there isn't any such animal. Where is communism that we may fight it? It simply does not exist. Communism is a word which the Russian revolutionists have appropriated to designate a certain brand of dictatorship which they hoped would dominate the whole world. By appealing to so-called workers by false assumptions, false statements and false promises, they hoped to capture not only their own country but actually all others. Altruism, generosity, tolerance and sacrifice, which are supposed to be the bases of the communist philosophy, have been supplanted by violence, compulsion, tyranny and murder. Sweetness and goodwill, which communism is supposed to engender among "comrades," have been as scarce as snowballs in August. The philosophy and the practice of communism do not have even a bowing acquaintance.
I know the excuse which is given for committing murder, rapine, treachery and outrage. It is the same excuse that is given for the dictatorship and oppression. The prophets of the new order blandly aver these are not the things they demand of others or promise for themselves, but they are interim necessities—just unavoidable incidents in the process of change from capitalism to communism. When they really establish communism, things will be different. Well, they'll have to be very different to have communistic philosophy and promise coincide with communistic actions and practice. As a matter of fact, communistic dictatorship has steadily become more rigid rather than less, and the ideals of freedom, justice, and altruism are being continually further removed from any connection with Russian communism. Dictatorship of any kind is bad enough at any time, but the communistic brand vies with that of the Hun in being the most cruel, inhuman, merciless, ruthless and barbarous of any form of tyranny with which modern history sullies its pages, and only the criminally or insanely gullible could be deceived thereby.
A dictatorship is not an accomplishment, it's a disease, the symptoms of which are felonious fingers and personified italics. To justify the display of his ego exaltation, the dictator usually poses as a sacrificial offering to the cause of communism, fascism, democracy or any other convenient disguise. He is therefore always the apostle of a better day and consequently much concerned about the welfare of the people, but we can hardly be censured for being suspicious when there is too much holy water sprinkled around. If he exhibits any modesty it is in his accomplishments rather than in his pretensions. In his bombastic utterances he reveals a strange parsimony in regard to facts, and plays with truth as a kitten gambols with a ball of yarn. The hatches of his mind are battened down so as never to admit any consistency, but he has discovered that it pays to continue kicking with the right foot. He never achieves greatness, for a passport to greatness must be visaed by time, and whenever he meets immortal fame he hits and rebounds. His sudden rise to a giddy eminence is usually accompanied by a mental vertigo. He specializes in No. 6 thrills until finally he loses his bearings and is wrecked on the shores of that land where lie buried those immortal dead who have sacrificed their lives on the altar of liberty, and where live those staunch souls whose independence can neither be purchased nor debauched.
There is not the slightest danger that America will ever become communistic,—we are too individualistic for that,—the danger is that America will be under the thumb of a dictator. The dictatorship will never be openly called such, but will be designated by some fictious name;—most likely it will be called "democratic emergency." The recent centralization of power in the federal government, and the centralization of the federal government in the hands of the President follow very closely the pattern which other dictatorships have woven.
Perhaps we fail to realize that we have been in an emergency ever since it was proclaimed in March 1933, and that the machinery set up at that time to meet it has been continually augmented rather than curtailed. Its duration will depend not upon external conditions, so much as upon
political considerations as judged by the chief executive.
If war is to be the normal program of the nations of the world, then the desirability of dictatorship is manifest, for there is no doubt but that war can best be directed by a centralized power. If, however, we are at all hopeful that peace shall ultimately reign, then we should guard well the springs of democracy, for dictatorship not only conducts war more efficiently, but feeds on war and strife. Peace and dictatorship don't jibe.
Whether or not we want a dictatorship, it may now be too late for us to decide; but, at worst, a decision should be made at an early date. At any rate, let us not be hoodwinked by the word "communism," that is simply a fig-leaf.