Books / Digital Text

Chapter 5: The Delinquent Liberals

Those who cling to socialism often say that we who have let go are suffering from shock at the murderous outcome of Lenin’s seizure of power in a backward country. Having never backed Lenin, they are immune to this hysterical reaction and are calmly awaiting the emergence of socialism in its proper time and place. It is true that the horrendous results of Lenin’s experiment in state control—and no less Hitler’s—have influenced our judgment. They have reminded us of certain hard facts of human history that in our infatuation with an ideal we had forgotten. And who will deny that the reminder has caused painful emotion? Who will pretend that, having watched at the cradle of a “society of the free and equal,” and seen rise out of it the most absolute and bloody tyranny that history has known, he did not experience a devastatingly sad surprise? I must testify, however, that I was more surprised and saddened by the reaction to that tyranny of liberal minds in free countries than by the tyranny itself.

I had never looked for purposive intelligence to our American liberals and humanitarian reformers. Although socially in the old days the line between us was not firmly drawn, we were separated emotionally and intellectually by my belief in progress through working class struggle. Kidding the New Republic of Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann from a class-struggle point-of-view was one of my pleasant pastimes as a socialist editor. The Survey and Villard’s Nation I liked better, but I thought of them too as theoretical opponents. I called the editors and adherents of these papers “soft-headed idealists,” by which I meant people who use their minds to mitigate the subjective impact of unpleasant facts instead of defining the facts with a view to drastic action.

Mind’s task is not to blur the real
With mimic tints from an ideal,
But change one into the other by an act.1

There occurred no change in my feeling on this subject when I abandoned the idea of proletarian revolution. I still think the worst enemy of human hope is not brute facts, but men of brains who will not face them. For that reason I had no high expectations of the liberal intelligentsia when it came to acknowledging that the “revolution of our times,” as so far conceived and conducted, is, has been, and will be, a failure. I never dreamed, however, that they could sink to the depths of maudlin self-deception and perfectly abject treason to truth, freedom, justice, and mercy that many of them have reached in regard to the Russian debacle. That has indeed profoundly, and more than any other shock, whether emotional or intellectual, disabused me of the dream of liberty under a socialist state. If these supposedly elevated and detached minds, free of any dread, of any pressure, of any compulsion to choose except between truth and their own mental comfort, can not recognize absolute horror, the absolute degradation of man, the end of science, art, law, human aspiration, and civilized morals, when these arrive in a far country, what will they be worth when the pressure is put upon them at home? They will be worth nothing except to those dark powers which will most certainly undertake to convert state-owned property into an instrument of exploitation beside which the reign of private capital will seem to have been, in truth, a golden age of freedom and equality for all.

To that much emotional shock I plead guilty. But I do not want to leave it there. Many of these delinquent liberals were my friends in past years despite our differences, and I find myself continually puzzling over the problem of their motivation. Why have they betrayed themselves? Why do they promote the interests of a regime under which even they, traitors to democracy though they are, would be shot for half-heartedness, or permitted to die of starvation in a slave camp for having in the past believed, or thought they believed, in freedom?

Up to the Bolshevik Revolution it is not hard to understand what happened to them. The old liberal movement grew out of the struggle against absolutism and feudal oppression. The freedom fought for in that struggle included free trade as a matter of course. But free trade and the industrial revolution soon raised the general wealth so high that idealists began to worry about the living conditions of the poor. Those living conditions were not, in the general average, worse than they had been. The change was in the attitude of civic-minded people toward them. It is not too much to say, as the canny Norwegian Trygve Hoff, does, that a social conscience was born of this great rise in wealth production. The first sensible step toward bettering the general condition of the poor would obviously have been to increase still more the production of wealth. Then if the pangs of the social conscience had kept pace with this increase all might have been well. What these pangs did was to run way ahead of the increase in wealth. People were attacking the businessman and demanding a better distribution of profits long before such distribution would have made any appreciable difference in the general condition of the poor. As wealth production increased, this state of pained conscience among liberals—themselves businessmen often enough—increased much faster. So fast that their zeal for liberty was gradually replaced by a zeal for a more equal distribution of wealth. Their liberalism became almost indistinguishable from humanitarianism. And this change of mind and mood among liberals was certainly not retarded by Marx’s doctrinaire announcement that their interest in freedom had been a fake all along: capitalist profits, not human rights, had been the goal of their struggle against absolutism; their great revolution had been “bourgeois,” not democratic.

They still talked the language of liberty—so also did Marx—but their dominant drive was toward a more even-handed distribution of the unheard-of wealth that, under a regime dominated by the idea of liberty, had been piling up. The culmination of this change was, in England, the decline of the Liberal party, the seeping away of its membership into the Labor party with its promise to expropriate the capitalists, and in the United States the transformation of the old liberal press into organs of the New Deal—the government of settlement workers become militant, not in the cause of freedom, but in the battle against “economic royalists.” The whole development is summed up in the contrast between Benjamin Franklin’s: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” and Harold Laski’s: “Those who know the normal life of the poor . . . will realize well enough that, without economic security, liberty is not worth having.”

This much, then, must be said in defense of the delinquent liberals. The edge of their passion for freedom had been growing blunter for decades before the rise of totalitarianism put their loyalties to a test. It is not only freedom that they betray, however, in apologizing for the Soviet tyranny, or pussyfooting about it, or blackening America so savagely that Russia shines in unspoken contrast. They are betraying civilization itself. They are lending a hand in the destruction of its basic values, promoting a return march in every phase of human progress. Reinstitution of slavery, revival of torture, star chamber proceedings, execution without trial, disruption of families, deportation of nations, massacre of communities, corruption of science, art, philosophy, history, tearing down of the standards of truth, justice, mercy, the dignity and the rights of man—even his right to martyrdom—everything that had been won in the long struggle up from savagery and barbarism. How shall I account for this depraved behavior—for that is how it appears to me—on the part of friends and colleagues who were once dedicated to an effort to make society more just and merciful, more truth-perceiving, more “free and equal” than it was?

They shield themselves from facts, I suppose, by a biased selection of the books and newspapers to read. Many violent conflicts of opinion come down to a difference in reading matter. And this is especially so in the case of Soviet communism, for it has been put over with a campaign of All-Russian and International Lying whose extent, skill, efficiency, and consecration is almost harder to believe in than the truth it conceals. Indeed the distinction between truth and the exact fabrications handed down for propagation by the heads of the world party in the Kremlin has disappeared very largely from the minds of its members. Until one has grasped this phenomenon in its full proportions, and learned to distinguish the sincere truth-teller from the sincere lie-teller, it is not easy to be hard-headed about Soviet communism. That too may be advanced in defense of the delinquent liberals—they are the victims of a swindle which nothing in past history had prepared them to detect.

A great many of them, however, are not deceived, but are swallowing the horrors of life under the Soviets with open eyes and a kind of staring gulp that is more like madness than a mistake. In the effort with their soft heads to be hard they have gone out of the world of reasoned discussion altogether. Again I will take the late Harold Laski as an example. No anti-communist has more candidly and crushingly described the blotting out of civilized values and all free ways of life by the Russian Soviet state than he did; and yet no pro-communist has more vigorously defended that state, or brought more intellectual authority to its support. There must be, I suppose, in all the delinquent liberals, a repressed conflict between the impulse to speak those truths that are important to man’s civilized survival and the more compelling thirst for a comfortable opinion. In Laski, because of some strange and perhaps bumptious quirk in his nature, this conflict was not repressed, but was naively or insolently blared forth. I met him for the last time in a debate on the “Town Meeting of the Air” September 19, 1946. Knowing about this conflict in his soul, I brought with me, typed out in condensed form, the passage from his Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time in which he most eloquently describes the horrors of life under the Soviet communist regime.

In the course of the debate, I made a remark about the crimes of the Russian Communists, and Laski replied: “It’s no part of my case that Russia hasn’t committed crime and been guilty of grave blunders and committed inconceivable follies; so has the United States, and so has Great Britain.”

In answer, I said: “I’m going to read you from Laski’s own book some of the crimes that have been committed in the Soviet Union, and you see if any of them have been committed in the United States or England.” I then read this passage from Laski’s book, or as much of it as I could crowd into the time granted me.

“Despite the pledges of the Constitution of 1936, there is no freedom of speech, except for Stalin’s adherents, no freedom of the press or assembly. Everyone knows that the elections are a farce; no candidatures are possible which reject the party line, and even the ballot-papers for them read like a hymn to Stalin. Freedom of movement is gravely restricted. Contact with foreigners is looked upon with suspicion. There is arbitrary arrest; there is long imprisonment and execution without trial. Citizens can not travel abroad without the permission of the government. Most political offences are tried in secret; there is no writ of habeas corpus, no right to subpoena witnesses, no right to a professional defence. The death-penalty may be imposed for injury to, or theft of, collective property; and even ‘teasing, mocking, or persecuting’ a shock-worker may, under Article 58 of the Criminal Code, become ‘wrecking,’ and so punishable with death.”

The moderator interrupted me and asked Laski: “Do you care to comment?” And Laski, spreading his hands in a gesture which my friends in the audience described as sickly, answered:


Laski did have, of course, a scheme for convincing himself that in a nation so chained and trampled by power-lustful and unbridled masters of the state, the Revolution of Our Time is bringing to birth a new age of freedom and humane reform. He accomplished it by opposing the words “economic” and “political” as though they designated things happening on different planets. While the above listed horrors filled the sphere called politics, the sphere called economics, he asked us to believe, was brimming with sweetness and light. I quote, also with condensation, from the same book:

In the narrow economic sphere, there is a more genuine basis for economic freedom for the masses in the Soviet Union than they have elsewhere previously enjoyed. . . . Millions, in every field and factory, help to make the conditions under which they live. There are the effective beginnings of constitutional government in industry. The rules of an enterprise are not made at the discretion of an employer who owns it, but are genuinely the outcome of a real discussion in which men and management participate . . . Care for the health, sanitation, and safety of the workers in field and factory has been established at a pace which would have been unthinkable in any capitalist society. . . . The administration of justice (political offences apart) . . . is on a level superior to that of most other countries. . . . Bench and bar alike have a more active and sustained interest in the improvement of legal procedure than anyone has displayed in Europe since Jeremy Bentham.

It is obvious that no man thinking about concrete facts could put these two passages into the same book and chapter. How can it be that in a country where “there is no right of habeas corpus, no right to subpoena witnesses, no right to a professional defence,” nevertheless “the administration of justice (political offences apart) is on a level superior to that of most other countries”? What jocular Deity brings it about that while death may be the penalty for teasing another worker, nevertheless “care for the health, safety and sanitation of the workers” outruns all previous norms? How does it come to pass that where “elections are a farce, freedom of movement is restricted, there is arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and execution without trial,” nevertheless “there are the effective beginnings of constitutional government in industry . . . and millions help to make the conditions under which they live”? Would these millions not be more likely, in a real world, to establish the beginnings of constitutional government by making the rules under which they can be dragged out and shot?

That this artificial division of society into two halves, political and economic, in which opposite things are taking place, should have been put before us with obeisances to “Marxism,” was a prodigy of intellectual acrobatics. Marx might be said to have spent his life trying to forestall this shallow dichotomy. But Marx or no Marx, any man of hard sense knows that the Russian people are not being subjected to those hideous political repressions for their own good. It is not to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven that the masters of the state have locked the population in this toothed vise.

I dwell upon this unreal notion of Laski’s because I think it exposes in a raw and yet elaborated form what has happened in the minds of many of the pro-Soviet liberals. They are not totally blind to the monstrous things that have happened in Russia, but they have reasoned their way to a point of tranquil acquiescence by means of this nonsense about political versus economic.

This too, then, must be said in behalf of the delinquent liberals: they had a rationalization, a cerebral alibi, so to speak, for their crime of treason against civilization. They managed to draw the whole thing up into their heads where it did not seem so bad.

It is significant that while the pro-communist liberals apologize for the political enslavement of the Russian people on the ground that they are economically free, the pro-socialist liberals make an opposite use of the same artificial distinction. They tell us that economic enslavement will not deprive us of our real freedom, which is political. Philip Rahv in the Partisan Review, defending the British socialist regime against the assertion of Dos Passos that “personal liberty has been contracted in Great Britain,” said: “The evidence cited by Dos Passos shows that the contraction he speaks of has occurred solely in the economic sphere. Socialists, however, do not consider the right to buy and sell as one pleases to be a significant part of the heritage of freedom.”2 Stuart Chase took the same line in defending a state-planned society, and to them both Friedrich Hayek made the obvious and conclusive answer: “Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends.”3

It hardly requires a Marx or a Hayek, however, to reveal the unreality of this dichotomy. It is clear to all who possess “the faculty to imagine that which they know.” And I often think that the lack of this faculty or habit, so justly praised by Shelley in his Defense of Poetry, is one of the main causes of the delinquency of the liberals. They are predominantly intellectual—and are not intellectuals in general, even when originally moved by sympathy, strangely heartless and conscienceless through the very fact that they make a habit of abstract thinking? A phrase like “workers and peasants,” or “kulaks,” or “prison camps,” or “execution without trial,” becomes a bloodless pawn which they move about on the cerebral blueprint of a schemed-out world with as little sense of the human hearts and bodies designated by it as though they were playing a game of chess. This enables them to go on calling themselves “left” and “liberal” after all the original meaning except to their own self-esteem has been drained out of those terms.

Another and cruder motive undoubtedly swung many once refined liberals into the camp of the brutalitarian tyrants. That is an underlying irresistible wish to associate themselves with power. Their early ideals had made spiritual rebels of them in their own country. They were commonly not only against the government and the “vested interests,” but in a condition at least of mild demur against the whole established hierarchy of persons and values. To the thinking mind this was valid and exciting, but to mere organic tissue it was a hard attitude to keep up for a lifetime. All human history testifies to the strength and generality of what may be called the hierarchical instinct. Students of comparative psychology have found it to prevail rigidly even in so pre-human a society as is to be found in the henyard. The caste system in a colony of jackdaws, as described by Konrad Lorentz in his book, King Solomon’s Ring, throws astonishing light on several traits and institutions that we think of as peculiarly human—particularly the disposition to recognize the elite, to fall in line comfortably under those having the prestige of superior power. Its roots seem to be as deep, almost, as the impulse to form a society. Surely this trait can not be ignored in trying to assess the causes of the cultural disaster that I am discussing.

Dwight MacDonald, speaking of a liberal whose delinquency was transitory and need not be advertised here, says: “The spell of communism for people like him seems to have been that at last they could identify themselves with power without feeling guilty. His political language, in America a despised minority dialect, was now spoken throughout a sixth of the globe. A vast international movement backed by a powerful government was going his way—or seemed to be.”

Whatever may be the inner truth about the individual in question, the acuteness of this comment on the great wave of enthusiasm for “the proletariat” that struck our liberal intelligentsia in the early thirties, can not be denied. Why did not this wave arise in the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution, when, although violent and brutal deeds were done, they were unsystemized and unusual, and were matched by heroic strides toward ideal reform in almost every phase of life? Hardly a single one of the noted liberals who came so boldly to the defense of Stalin’s matured and hardened totalitarian police state had a good word to say for the regime of Lenin and Trotsky. There was a hazard then. Later there was a settled and secure new form of power. It is hard to escape the conclusion that in the depth of them that is what they wanted.

Still I do not think this trait, or all the above traits together fully explain the treachery to civilization of so many distinguished minds in this crisis of man’s history. They had not all lost their passion for freedom; they did not all fall for the lie campaign, or swallow the politics-versus-economics moonshine; they are not all excessively cerebral, or swayed by the primitive adoration of power. I think probably the most general explanation lies in a kind of spiritual cowardice. Life is a battle; it is a battle without any final or assured victory, and these aspiring idealists lack the pluck to go down fighting it. Bereaved of other-worldly goals, they have been yearning for some home, some certainty, some Absolute on earth, if it is only the absolute parody of their dreams. And that is about all there is left of the Soviet heaven after they get through listing the qualifications in their adoration of it. The extent of these qualifications makes plain the selfishness of their mental condition. With all their brains, they can not draw the inference that any casual man who cares about other people even a little bit must draw from the continuing horrors suffered by millions of simple-hearted, honest folk under the Kremlin’s lash. They can not do it because it would cause a pain in their own safe bosoms. They would have to know, then, that the world is just as bad as it is, and just as fluid too. There is no end-term in the fight to better it.

  • 1. The lines are from the preface to my poem, “Lot’s Wife.”
  • 2. “Disillusionment and Partial Answers” in Partisan Review for May 1948.
  • 3. The Road to Serfdom, pp. 88 and 92.
Shield icon library