Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
IT IS a remarkable thing that as soon as a nation begins to assemble and exploit sources of wealth and power it begins at the same time, as with the instinct of a unitary organism, to secrete dynamic cultural forces within itself. There are many examples in history of this process, that of Elizabethan England being merely the most striking. Equally remarkable is that when a nation, out of such beginnings, attains to world leadership, it preserves that rank only so long as its culture--which is to say not merely its achievements in the humanities but also its manners and beliefs and civil institutions--commands respect and some degree of emulation. For though leadership is conquered by power it is maintained over a significant span of time only with the free assent of the led; and free assent is given only to moral and not to material authority. Of this, too, history furnishes multiple examples. It was with the aid of her fleet, her imperial outposts, her world-wide network of finance and trade that Britain made herself leader of the nineteenth century world; but she could not have maintained that leadership without her reputation for fair play, honest accounts, incorruptible law courts and administrators, and a political system that was the admiration of the world. Louis XIV reigned over the richest and most populous nation in the Europe of his age; he commanded the services of the most brilliant generals and cabinet secretaries; but he could not have continued master of the Continent for 40 years if all Europe had not been eager to speak and write French, if every German princeling had not been ambitious to build a little Versailles of his own, if the French court had not set the standard of polite intercourse. The power the Germans might have wielded in our time, had they not been governed under Wilhelm II by conceited and impatient vulgarians, was better attested by their learning, their science, and their reputation as strummers of zithers and walkers in the woods than by the army, the bureaucracy, and the industrialists who made of Kultur a word abhorred by the rest of mankind.
These are the conditions of world leadership. Without them wealth and might lead only to hatred, conspiracy and revolt against the physically dominant power. The Romans themselves, who were not the most sympathetic personalities, carried with them their language and its prodigious literature wherever they conquered; and when Roman arms had ceased to prevail, when Rome itself was no longer a capital, Roman law and Roman Christianity sufficed for centuries to hold the Germanic barbarians in awe of the name of Rome.
II. ANXIOUS EUROPE
In this respect the position of the United States is not so weak as is often suggested by those who fail to discriminate between spontaneous cultural influences and deliberate propaganda. As regards the former, the Russians run us a very poor second indeed. Europeans do take pleasure from listening to the music of Shostakovitch or Khachaturian; but this side of the Iron Curtain nobody any longer reads a Soviet book, sees a Soviet film, produces a Soviet play--to say nothing of driving a Soviet motorcar or using Soviet tools and gadgets in field, factory or kitchen. And by their Hitlerian tactic of nationalizing or "racializing" science and the arts the Muscovites have merely succeeded in exciting the hilarity of the universe.
The evidences of American cultural influence, on the other hand, are so abundant that they can be indicated only by random sampling. The American school of novel writing has been the dominant school in Europe for nearly 30 years. In England we see at one end of the cultural spectrum works of American scholarship repeatedly extolled in the learned press and at the other end the deep incrustation of American idioms in English speech. When British provincial newspapers call their biographical sketches "profiles" and a Labor Party rally sings American songs;[i] when Punch takes over from The New Yorker its one-line captions and some of its satiric subjects; when a British poet, publishing in Egypt, salutes Alexandria as a "bright new city Arab-Amerikanki;" when a European authority writes that the leading review in the field of aesthetics is that published by the Cleveland Museum of Art--then, clearly, chewing-gum, the comics, Coca Cola, and the tawdrier products of Hollywood cannot be thought of as the only world-wide disseminators of the "American way of life." A Swiss curator writes in the Neue Zuercher Zeitung that Europe has everything to learn from American museum directors about winning the public to a concern with art. An Italian educator says there are no elementary schools to compare with ours. A Hindu director of an institution for deaf mutes comes to the United States to learn more about his subject. "Blue babies" are brought from Europe for treatment in American clinics. Whole areas of serious musical composition are no longer the same since we began in the 1920's to export jazz. The libraries and reading rooms which now form part of every American diplomatic mission are visited daily in scores of countries by thousands of foreigners avid to learn about America and even to learn from America.
In the nineteenth century we should have been able to enjoy these evidences of our increasing maturity and the spread of our culture almost with complacency. We should have been envied and called hard names; we should have had rivals and even enemies. But our men of affairs, in politics and business, would have exercised their functions in relative tranquillity, and our intelligentsia, free of the obfuscations of the mind and torments of the spirit engendered by ideological passions, would have pursued their researches and created their works of the imagination out of hearing of the hurly-burly of the everyday world. But that universe came to an end--whether we say with the war of 1914, the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the depression which began in 1929 does not much matter--and Europeans are again as passionately partisan or as miserably uncertain in their souls as they were during the sixteenth century wars of religion. It is not prosperity but security that they ask for today; it is not material progress that they seek, but faith. They live in a mental climate eloquently described by the London Times Literary Supplement last summer in these words: "Intense and unremitting anxiety is generally held to be one of the chief characteristics of contemporary Europe. It is a disease of individual psychology, but it is at present so widespread as to make it almost an element in the European character. . . . In Eastern Europe, and even to some extent in the United States, men know where they are going and are confident of their powers. In Western Europe they know nothing of their goal; only that they follow a road mapped out by others; and that deviation from it is not possible."
How shall we define this anxiety which fills the European soul?[ii] We cannot call it dread of material want, for materially Europe has not been so well off in a dozen years. We cannot measure it by what we see round us in America, for with us anxiety seems still to be a "disease of individual psychology" and not yet an "element in the American character." The European is asking what man ought to be, the American is asking what man ought to do. And although the first question is nobler than the second, it is also different from the second. As a nation, we have our problems; but they seem to stand before us in full view. There never seems to be more in them than meets the eye; they seem to be the kind that can be solved by reason, negotiation, compromise, administrative measures.
This is not the light in which Europe sees its problems. There the acute question is doctrinal. It involves the intellectual strain of making up one's mind to accept or reject a new faith. What stands in the way of European unity, even within the nations, is the tendency in Europe to ask--not, "Is this the soundest way to secure the general good?" but, "Is this the Communist way, or the Catholic way, or the Socialist way?" Loyalty to doctrine being thus deemed the highest good, every proposed solution of a pressing problem tends to be fraudulent. The first purpose of the doctrinaire being the seizure of power, he is bound to assert that nothing can be done for the general good until he has been voted into power. And as, in the most troubled countries, no single doctrinaire party has a clear majority, realistic solutions continue to be postponed; and postponement has both a material effect and a psychic effect. Since the means of life must continue to be produced and distributed, it drives the economic community into makeshift schemes, and men grow rich by the practice of arrant chicaneries--foreign exchange manipulation, multiple pricing, black-marketeering, bribery of government officials. The habits of honorable trading suffer correspondingly.
At the same time, since all public debates deal with points of doctrine and not of material fact, the press can report only doctrinal conflict and the voter must make up his mind, not about the realities of a concrete issue but about the moral or social validity of a point of theory. The result is that to the European's private anxieties--the individual kind with which we are familiar--are added ulcerating anxieties over public affairs of an intensity unknown among us. Nowhere in Europe will we find the easy attitude suggested in a Pittsburgh dispatch to The New York Times during the steel strike of last October, which reported that companies were serving hot coffee to the pickets, union maintenance men were preserving the plants from damage, and a striker "grinned at the suggestion of trouble. 'Nah,' he exclaimed, 'the union has grown up--and so has the company, I guess.'" It is this spirit of reason and self-confidence that has been driven out of Europe by the European's concern with doctrine.
It would be a mistake to imagine that only the Communists were responsible for this state of affairs. The Communists are followed by a minority of Western Europeans-- say 20 percent-- and they do not by any means command all the resources of European publicity. Our failure as "agitators and missionaries" (as one distinguished commentator recently put it) does not lie in our inability to convert masses of Communists--which would be a futile objective. Our failure lies in not winning over to our side that great majority of Europeans who are both anti-Communist and anti-capitalist.
Few people in Europe see the cold war as one between democracy and Sovietism, freedom and slavery. When M. Ramadier defended the Marshall Plan in the French Chamber two years ago he declared that it was not shameful for France to "accept aid from Wall Street." When the historian of modern diplomacy, Harold Nicolson, lectured at the University of Glasgow in November 1948 he said, "I should myself infinitely prefer to become a lackey of Wall Street than a slave of the Soviets." That is how our best friends symbolize us at the very moment when they are defending us.
They know what Soviet Russia is and they fear her domination intensely. But they do not know what America is and they are in doubt about our motives, our moral capacities and our material stability. They fear that we may be what they call "economic imperialists," plotting to pour our "surplus" goods into their markets because without their markets we must have great unemployment. They fear that our economic system is one of alternate bust and boom which offers no security to any nation not rich enough in resources to accept the risk involved in such a crazy system. They are doctrinaire because they are in search of security on the most modest standard; and security is not something which is promised by God when He sends a babe into the world, it is not a natural condition of life--wherefore they believe it must be planned and blueprinted. They are humiliated by the thought that they must seek help at our hands, and they console themselves in their humiliation by the comforting thought that their culture is superior to ours. And above all they judge our evolving capitalism by their own, and they detest it.
In what light they judge we may see from a comparison of Communism and capitalism drawn, not by an enemy on the Left, but by an opponent on the Right; by the editor of the official organ of the Vatican, the Osservatore Romano, who wrote in that newspaper on May 7, 1949: "Communism, viewed as an economic system and leaving aside its philosophy, is not as inimical to the nature of Christianity as capitalism is. . . . Capitalism has no philosophy, is not the victim of an atheistic ideology. It is atheistic in its nature; and it is inherent in its structure that its god should be money." Nor are the Protestants far behind the Vatican. "Capitalism is incompatible with that dignity of man which is the purpose of Christianity," said Réforme, the leading French Calvinist weekly. It was William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury who wrote that "the bourgeoisie, wherever it got the upper hand . . . left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest and callous cash payment." We may take it as fact that the spiritual and intellectual leaders of Europe have turned their backs on capitalism as they know it--and have resolutely refused to see what America is doing to reform it.
What makes this so serious is that the European adversaries of capitalism (and therefore of America), who are at the same time the enemies of Communism, are so bitterly divided, so much in love with the word and so little gifted for the deed, that without the United States they would be swallowed up by the Communists in a single mouthful. Every reproach they offer us in their press--whether it deal with our treatment of the Negro, our chewing-gum civilization, our hypocrisy in demanding free trade in Europe and threatening tariff increases in the United States, our alleged enmity to European Socialist forces and inclination to support landowners in Italy and Ruhr barons in Germany--every such reproach redounds in the end to the support of Communism in their countries.
In these matters, nobody leads European opinion astray so much as the British Labor intellectual who writes glibly (as Edward Crankshaw did): "In Europe today the staunchest and strongest opponent of Moscow Communism is not the neo-Fascist, but the Social Democrat," and then adds with unnecessary tact, "America seems to find this very hard to believe." It is true that the Social Democrat is much more staunchly anti-Communist than the neo-Fascist; but, except in Britain and Scandinavia, who would call him "strong?" When the French conservative, André Siegfried, advises his compatriots that it is "less important to study the points at which the United States and the Soviet Union differ than to be aware of their resemblance," he does France and Europe an immense disservice. In his loyalty to French craftsmanship he speaks as if, alone among the nations, France had the power to choose to remain a nation of petit bourgeois.
Europe's present governors are our friends and allies; but who can say how long those governors will remain in power? Who can say who will govern Europe when the Marshall Plan expires in 1952? Were we to abstain, France might be for Stalin what Czechoslovakia was for Hitler. Precisely because it is anti-capitalist, the immense Catholic-Democratic Party in Italy might melt under the glance of Stalin as the immense Communist Party in Germany melted under the glance of Hitler. This is why it is so important to the European anti-Communists themselves that they look twice at the United States before they depict the American system as a horror to be rejected equally with the Soviet horror. This is why it is important that we learn to draw for Europe a true and honest picture of our civilization.
III. THE TASK DEFINED
Nothing would be more fatal to our purpose and more fiercely resisted than an attempt to impose any aspect of our culture--social, political, economic--upon the Europeans. If it should turn out to be at all possible to persuade them to adapt our solutions to their problems, that persuasion will be effected by our example, not by our preaching. It is not sentimental but realistic to say that, in the end, it is friends we want, not military allies, brothers, not political clients.
It would be absurd to deny our frailties as men and futile to seek to conceal our shortcomings as a nation. But there are two ways in which the American people have succeeded as well, perhaps, as any in history; and as these are ways in which our European critics have most unhappily failed, we ought to display them with clarity. The Europeans hover today between the Scylla of dictatorship and the Charybdis of anarchy; we ought to demonstrate to them that this pioneer nation has chopped out a broad and safe road between those dangers.
That in a world of centralization of political power we have preserved not only the self-reliance of the individual but also the autonomy of the local community is a fact which we may proudly acclaim. This is our highest moral contribution to the present age. Secondly, in a world in which economic concentration is absolutely inescapable--because without it the wants of millions cannot to any extent be economically satisfied--we have come nearest to accomplishing the separation of economic power and political power; we alone have been able to instill in our economic leaders that respect for public opinion which is the characteristic of our political leaders. And this too presents a moral aspect, since it has required that our economic leaders adjust themselves to the fact that those who conduct great affairs have a responsibility to the people which transcends whatever selfish interest ownership may inspire and whatever lure power may dangle before the eyes of the managers of enterprise.
To make this clear abroad requires that we ourselves see clearly what is going on in our society, that we reëxamine it with a fresh eye.
IV. THE AMERICAN COMMUNITY
What are the moral elements of American life that can be recognized and combined into a freehand sketch of our society--this society which cannot be blueprinted because it is a living organism and not a set of bloodless categories? What are we?
Franklin wrote in 1783 to his English friend, David Hartley, "We are more thoroughly an enlightened people, with respect to our political interests, than perhaps any under heaven. Every man among us reads, and is so easy in his circumstances, as to have leisure for conversations of improvement, and for acquiring information." Not even an Englishman could have said as much in that age. It is interesting that when Edmund Burke set out in 1796 to determine what he himself meant when he spoke of "the people" in a political sense, he applied Franklin's own yardstick to England and Scotland, and discovered that he meant only 400,000 adults--some 4 or 5 percent of the population as against Franklin's "every man among us."
In the eighteenth century, ideas of liberty were spread in England and in France by men remote from the people. Burke moved among the Whig aristocracy; the Encyclopaedists and even Rousseau lived in the company of the noble and the rich. The contrast with colonial America is so striking that we can only be astonished to find it so little remarked. Informed political thinking on this continent was not the exclusive property of the Virginia planters, the New York patroons and the seaboard merchants. Ministers of the gospel taught the principles of politics directly to the farmer and the village mechanic, to an order of men who, in Europe, would have stared in idiotic incomprehension if they had been invited to reflect upon the philosophical basis of government. We have proof that Franklin was not exaggerating when we read[iii] that it was the Reverend Edward Dorr, of Hartford, Connecticut, who told his flock in 1765 that, "The rulers of this world have generally set themselves in opposition to the interest of true religion and the cause of Christ." It was the Reverend Charles Turner, of Duxbury, Massachusetts, who said to his congregation in 1773, "Unlimited power has generally been destructive of human happiness. The people are not under such temptation to thwart their own interests, as absolute government is under to abuse the people." It was the Reverend Samuel Webster, of Salisbury, Massachusetts, who warned from his pulpit in 1777 that "encroachments on the people's liberties are not generally made all at once, but so gradually as hardly to be perceived by the less watchful." These are dicta of a kind which we applaud in an Acton, a Tocqueville, a Mill; among us they were pronounced before humble men, in villages of a few hundred souls, in wooden meeting-houses and not in salons and châteaux. And let it not be said that such words had no meaning for the millions who came to America only after 1840 and 1880. Nothing is more self-evident than the ease with which the social machine of America has taken in Europeans at one end and turned out Americans at the other.
This is the deep source of American self-reliance, of what is called American individualism. This is why Mill could write in 1859 a remarkable tribute to the American people: "Let them be left without a government, every body of Americans is able to improvise one, and to carry on that or any other business with a sufficient amount of intelligence, order and decision. This is what every free people ought to be; and a people capable of this is certain to be free." A quarter century before Mill, Tocqueville had already described what it meant to carry on a free government: "No sooner do you set foot on American soil than you are stunned by a kind of tumult; a confused clamor is heard on every side. . . . Here the people of one neighborhood are met to decide upon the building of a church; there the election of a representative is going on; a little farther the delegates of the district are posting to the town to consult upon some local improvement; in another place the farmers are leaving their ploughs to deliberate upon the project of a road or a school. . . . If an American were condemned to confine his activity to his own affairs, he would feel robbed of half his existence."
"Disorderly, of course; but surely you are not still like that?" a skeptical European might murmur. An Italian witness who visited us in 1949 would answer that we were. Dr. Nencioni, of the Italian Ministry of Education, wrote last year in the New York Herald Tribune: "I was able to understand many things about American life only after I understood that you have a 'horizontal society' in which every individual feels connected with his neighbors and tends to act in groups and with a sense of collective responsibility. It is not true at all that America, as they say, is a nation of individual people. Europe, on the contrary, is a 'vertical society,' that is, a very individualistic society. . . . The European, if he is not a Communist or Socialist, usually does not like broadly social ideas or enterprises; at most he is interested in an idea or an enterprise which involves his own élite."
I am not sure that we are ourselves aware how firmly we have clung to habits of mind inherited from the Age of Enlightenment--that partly rational and practical, partly moral and religious attitude to life which began to be disdained before the middle of the last century, when German metaphysics conquered European thought. We have never bred philosophers in the metaphysical sense of searching out first causes and elaborating theories of knowledge or being. On the one hand we are the inheritors of the uninspired John Locke and those not particularly profound men of sense in France who were called the Encyclopaedists. On the other hand we derive from the severe non-conformist divines of Britain for whom the Ten Commandments were more important than the subtleties of ontology. We are not doctrinaire, we have no dogmas to exalt; we are empiricists, and our defects are revealed when we are compelled to shift rapidly from the short to the long view. We leave ourselves free to act as seems to us rationally requisite or emotionally satisfying in any present situation. We talk wildly against our government; but let any man propose one of a different nature and we call him a traitor. We spend our lives in the pursuit of culture and "self-improvement," but we still pretend that the best school is the "University of Hard Knocks." We are such joiners of committees, clubs, lodges, associations, reading circles, dramatic societies, "do-good" groups as the world has never before seen; yet we boast of our individualism, ignorant that an individual is a mere organism and only a member of a community is a person. A European might say--a German would surely say it--that we were philosophically contemptible; very well, we are philosophically contemptible. But our Platonist and Hegelian adversaries, the Fascists, Nazis, Communists, Socialists, state planners--they are philosophically respectable. Is that truly a consolation?
Not every American is a self-reliant citizen with a sense of responsibility for his community; not every American community is without factions other than those healthily bred by indispensable political rivalry. Yet these are the distinguishing traits of our society, and they are not made apparent to the European in those commonplaces of speech which come so glibly to the American tongue: "individualism," "competitive spirit," "free enterprise." They are not conveyed by abstractions like "democracy" or even "Jeffersonian democracy." To give them meaning we must particularize; and though particular instances are reported every day in our press, they are of interest only when an artist arranges them in a harmonious pattern, for by itself each instance seems inconsequential. Thus, I think of an incident reported in The New Yorker--not a magazine notorious for either sentimentality or flag-waving. A transcontinental truck journey is the subject; "Boyle" is the driver; a narrow street in Indianapolis is the scene: "When the light turned green the motorman waited for us to edge by him. 'See that?' Boyle said to me. 'He held up for us. If he hadn't waited, we'd of been stuck following him for blocks. We all get along--bus drivers, truckers, streetcar men, even a lot of cops. We know each other's problems.'" I think of the press conference, that American substitute for question-time in a European parliament, and how directly it brings every public leader, including the President himself, under the scrutiny of the people. I think of our exaggeratedly reviled pressure groups--economic, religious, racial, professional, regional, ideological--this non-authoritarian but regulated substitute for a chamber of corporations; and I reflect how these hundreds of minority representations contribute to the annulment of the greatest danger inherent in democracy, which is the tyranny of the majority--that tyranny exercised today in Russia and yesterday in Hitlerian Germany.
The ideal of self-government has sunk so profoundly into the American being that Europeans, who imagine it means merely freedom from monarchical absolutism, have scarcely the faintest notion how different our democracy is from theirs. A Frenchman is aware that we are a federation of states; but when you point out to him what this means--that we have no European-style ministry of the interior, with its nationwide police and its prefects and sub-prefects ruling over the geographic divisions and subdivisions of the nation, he is as astonished as was his forefather who, under Louis XIV, nearly died laughing when he learnt for the first time that the Venetians did not have a king. We are pluralists; but not in the European fashion of giving one's exclusive loyalty to a doctrine, a party, a church, or a corporate interest; we are pluralists in the sense that our multifarious groups collect, each in its own way, to serve the general good. Here, for example, is the Advertising Council, a voluntary organization of professional men who donate to the nation the copy and posters--the designs, the technical skill--that go into our public campaigns for better schools, road safety, fire prevention, government bond sales, the war on tuberculosis and other diseases. Something of this sort is done in other countries--by government bureaus. Here is the Controllers Institute of America, a society with 3,300 members who are constantly studying and devising economies, not with their eye on higher profits so much as on lower costs of doing business in order that prices may remain low despite rising wages, and the products of industry be thus within the purchasing power of an ever larger number of citizens. Here is the National Municipal League fighting "bitter battles against fat and placid political bosses . . . against corruption and inefficiency," holding its annual conference at St. Paul, Minnesota, and praising the radical C.I.O. for a job well done in Philadelphia, the conservative Taxpayers Association for reforms introduced in Poughkeepsie, a local United Workers Organization for the clean-up of Bayonne, the League of Women Voters for getting rid of a certain Mayor of Grand Rapids, the City Charter Committee of Cincinnati for overcoming boss-rule, the Citizens' Committee of Worcester for the same; and other local bodies for reforms and improvements in Cleveland, Boston, San Antonio, Des Moines.
Are we governed by something called "Wall Street?" If this were true, we should know it, for we know the name of each lobbyist who represents big business at Washington, and we know his salary, his allowance for expenses, and his office budget. We know how much the great political parties receive in contributions, as well as the name of each contributor and the amount of his contribution. Not only are these facts of public record, but they form part of the income-tax declarations of the interested parties and are scrupulously checked by our Treasury inspectors. The short answer to the charge that we are "governed by Wall Street" is this: the Department of Agriculture is still in effect a farm lobby; the Department of Labor is still a labor-union lobby; but no one who has read an American newspaper in the past 15 years could believe that the Department of the Treasury exists for the sake of the bankers.
Despite farm-price support, despite tariff protection, despite public pensions and free services, the American stubbornly retains his habit of looking after himself. Last year 36 farm-credit cooperatives in Texas paid off $8,000,000 owing to the Treasury and raised an additional $7,000,000 to replace the government funds, because they wanted to be independent of government supervision--and this despite the fact that they paid no tax on profits derived from government-loaned capital and must now pay taxes on profits derived from their own funds. In November 1949, before the potato scandal broke, Farm Journal, a magazine with a circulation of 2,250,000, concluded as follows from a survey it conducted: "Last year the government practically forced on [our potato farmers] $225,000,000 they didn't want, and the growers are paying for it with ruined reputations." A farmer named Harold Blakely wrote from East Aurora, New York, "I would rather support my government than to have to depend on the government to support me;" while from Tulelake, California, G. W. Osborne wrote with more heat, "Let the farmer run his own job. Let's pick our own taters and dump them to our pigs, not on air strips, and we won't have half as many worthless rascals on our [government] payrolls." The idea that farmers should be sensitive to what their fellow men think of them, and should prefer the reputation of good citizens to the largest possible government subsidy, is perhaps something new in the world.
Nor is the American farmer the "isolationist" he is generally thought to be. The Nation's Agriculture (organ of the American Farm Bureau Federation) has been impressing upon him--it says, successfully--that he must buy foreign goods if he is to sell his product in foreign countries. We have yet to see evidence that European farmers' unions, spurred on by the grave pronouncements of the U.N.'s Economic Commission for Europe and the Organization for European Economic Coöperation, are telling their members that all Europeans must buy from one another. Last December the woman's auxiliary of the Farm Federation met in Chicago to hear Mme. Pandit, the Ambassador of India, and other eminent speakers. Tu quoque is a detestable mode of debate, but we may still ask how many of the indubitably prosperous farmers of Europe would give their wives money to go to Milan or Lyons or Rotterdam to discuss national affairs and listen to the views of the Indian or American Ambassador? Who is here the "isolationist," the American or the European farmer?
The sense of community responsibility manifested by the city dweller is even more acutely present on the American countryside. When the parents of the village of Askov, Minnesota, became alarmed about the persistence of dental trouble among their children, the State Dental Association stepped in, discovered that the source lay in faulty diet, and made Askov the scene of a ten-year program which the dentists, educators and public health authorities of the whole nation are watching. Costs of prevention are being paid for by the state, costs of corrective treatment by the villagers. When the citizens of Miami County, Ohio, realized that they had among them backward schoolchildren, poorly adjusted farm youths home from the wars, more divorce than was seemly, they did not wait for either federal or state government to "vaccinate the community against worries," as they put it. They held a three-day meeting, founded a "County Mental Hygiene Association," assessed dues at $2.00 per annum, set up a board of 22 members with a paid secretary, organized lectures at which the local banker spoke on household budgeting, the minister on the sacrament of marriage, the doctor on health, others on sex and on child psychology; and they arranged that all suits for divorce should (without revelation of names) be analyzed in camera by a judge, a minister, a physician and a psychiatrist before recourse was had to law. When the people of Henderson County, Kentucky, became aware of the degree of illiteracy, tuberculosis and other disturbing conditions in their community, they--white and Negro together--created a "Committee for Kentucky" which their credo describes as "a physical embodiment of the belief that men and women can assemble from different interests and occupations, from different racial stocks and religions, from different social and economic conditions, and, by subordinating special interests to general interests, can thereby achieve a richer, fuller community life." And the matter did not end there. Their first success was the passage by the State legislature of a program they drafted at a cost to themselves of $13,000,000 in added taxes.
America swarms with thousands of these self-critical and self-inspired organisms, these examples of the American refusal to be led by the nose in the domain of ideas, or by the hand in the domain of government. Of course there is evidence enough to support the charges levelled by European intellectuals--and, we may add, by our own--against our society. We are men, not angels; and the worst about us is always to be read in our press, which never hesitates to unmask to the world everything evil, tasteless and grotesque that takes place among us. We cannot object that we are charged with horrors, but we may object that the Europeans who level the charges assume, in their candor, that the horrors result from our obedience to some sort of doctrine--whereas Americans know no doctrine, every element in our society is marked by flux and change, trial and error, ceaseless experiment and debate.
If ever there was a nation to justify Burke's dictum, that a state which is without the means of change is without the means of self-preservation, it is the United States. By change we conserve our being; and we are intuitively too wise to encase ourselves in the strait-jacket that would forever prohibit change, the strait-jacket of doctrine. We know, too, that revolution does not mean change; for we see that the French have had a dozen revolutions since 1789, yet the more revolutions they have, the more they find themselves living under the same régime. Our Constitution is the only fixed point in our society, revered as if Heaven-sent; yet even it is a kind of set of chess rules allowing all the permutations essential to democratic free play.
V. A FRESH LOOK AT AMERICAN CAPITALISM
It is not only the anti-capitalists of Europe who are suspicious of American capitalism; and indeed that suspicion is not a simple thing. In part it is, of course, doctrinaire and theoretical. In part it is wilful and responsive to the pathological need of the non-Communist intellectual to compensate for his feeling of inferiority toward the United States. In part it is the inescapable result of our own blundering and self-contradiction. We assist Socialist and "socializing" régimes, but we preach anti-Socialism: this is our "hypocrisy." Individual Americans visit Madrid and urge loans to Franco: this is the "natural Fascism" of American business. An American banker naively extols the Germans by saying that "They go to work like Americans more than any other people in the world:" proof that we have always been "pro-German." The E.C.A. presses for free trade and non-discrimination in Europe while the government extends price-support to our farmers and subsidies to our merchant marine: clear evidence that we seek to weaken Europe's economy by forbidding her to employ the means we use to strengthen our own. The city of Seattle rejects a British manufacturer's low bid on transformers and awards the contract to an American company: evidently our loyalty to the principle of free competition stops at our borders. "This distrust," writes The New York Times' economic correspondent at Geneva, "is one of the few beliefs about America common to Europeans of all shades of opinion . . . British bankers, U.N. economists, continental labor leaders." And not without reason, for if the conclusions drawn from the charges are too harsh, the charges themselves are incontrovertible.
What the Europeans fail to see is that what may be true of the United States in June will not necessarily be true in December; that we are ceaselessly at work to rectify our mistakes and repair our injustices. If we were the economic imperialists they suspect us of being, surely the National Association of Manufacturers ought to be a hotbed of economic imperialism. Yet last year the N.A.M. expressed its opposition to the use of E.C.A. funds to subsidize either industrial or farm exports--to the dismay of part of its membership; and this year it is organizing a campaign in 20 cities (the community touch again) for the encouragement of increased imports of foreign goods. As this is written, the State Department and the E.C.A. have suggested Congressional study of the possibility of public compensation for owners, and retraining of workers, in American industries which are too weak to survive foreign competition without tariff protection or subsidies. Where else, we may ask, are men to be found bold enough to propose that businesses incapable of competition be eliminated, and that the resultant private loss be absorbed by the nation at large? This is true economic statesmanship.
The European judges our capitalism in the light of what he knows about his own, and we have allowed him to remain in profound ignorance of the differences between the two. It is absurd to force history into a capsule, but we may say that since the end of the Middle Ages, since the rise of the centralized monarchical power, the trend of European capitalism has been away from a sense of responsibility to the community and towards exploitation of the community. Throughout most of Europe the natural leaders of the nation have for centuries been the politicians, the bureaucrats, and the intellectuals; and this tradition still persists. Though there are individual exceptions, the European business man is not the natural leader of his community. We do not find him presiding, as among us, over local or national committees for the betterment of society, the stimulation of art and learning, the improvement of health services, the assurance of justice to the "underprivileged," the elimination of corrupt practice in both public and private affairs. In the United States, literally thousands of examples of this phenomenon can be cited. And the tradition that the rich man should devote his fortune to the general good goes back among us to the beginnings of the Republic--at least to 1813, when Stephen Girard left almost every penny of his $7,500,000 to public causes.
But what is more to the point, the European capitalist has been slow to see that money is to be made, not by grinding the faces of the working class, but by devising means to produce goods cheap enough in price so that they constitute an incentive to the worker to collaborate in the processes of production, to refrain from putting obstacles in the way of mechanization, and thus earn the surplus with which to buy and enjoy those goods. This is the true meaning of those statistical measurements which demonstrate that the individual American worker's output is so much higher than the European's. This is why, for three generations, the American worker has not had the same cause as the European to envy his employer; since, on the whole, both have had the same material advantages in our country, both have had bathrooms, motorcars, telephones, meat, green vegetables, orange juice and the rest. In 1948 the British railways ran 19,631 miles of track with 648,740 employees; the Santa Fe Railroad ran 13,081 miles of track with 66,169 men. In 1948 we mined three times as much coal as the British with only little more than half the number of miners. These parallels are not at all points a fair comparison, but we may still reflect how many workers might have been released in Britain for the production of consumer's goods if the British operated with the efficiency of the Americans.
European observers have remarked repeatedly that there is no class warfare in the United States. We have already seen why. First, there is the constant concern of the American businessman, under the pressure of competition, to keep his costs low despite a rising level of real wages; and secondly, there is the superior awareness of American labor that productivity must be kept high because social security without increasing productivity merely means a lower standard of living, a thinner spreading of the same quantity of jam. Nor do we need to take a high moral tone about the good sense of the American businessman and labor leader. Adam Smith wrote in 1776 concerning the free enterpriser, "By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." That applies to the labor leader as well. The trick is to be clear about where one's "own interest" lies. Of course the American businessman was lucky in his environment; but once he had shaken off European habits of bourgeois prudence, he was quick to see that his interest lay in contributing to the highest possible standard of living for all his countrymen, in creating ever-new purchasing power. As well as can be judged at this distance, the European businessman and labor-leader have still to learn this lesson.
VI. A WORD ABOUT "BIGNESS."
"But all this talk about American competition is nonsense!" the European will exclaim. "Only last year one of your government bureaus reported that in 1947 some 46 percent of the total assets of your manufacturing companies were controlled by only 113 firms." Very likely. It was also reported that as against 3,100,000 business enterprises present in the United States in 1929, there were 4,000,000 in 1948. And it may be remarked that we have now 20 giant oil companies, eight or nine steel concerns, three or four great tobacco manufacturers, as against only one in each category in 1900. We have, that is, a vast network of competitive enterprise accompanied, no longer by monopoly, but by the competition of the few--oligopoly. Yet this does not answer the question how oligopoly can possibly be avoided. What would be the good of rural electrification, for instance, if the farmer could not buy an electric lamp for as little as 18 or 20 cents? And has it not been proved that to make such a lamp to sell at such a price requires the prior investment of hundreds of millions of dollars? The question to ask about bigness--at least in those sectors of industry where it is inescapable--is not, what can we do to eliminate it, but, what can we do to regulate it? Nobody would deny that the concentration of economic power in a few hands is dangerous. What our critics ignore is that it was only in the United States that that danger began to be recognized and dealt with 60 years ago by the Congress and the courts; and--which is perhaps more important--that only in the United States is that danger being treated today with a prudent regard to the fundamental liberties of the citizen. Everywhere else the shadow is being mistaken for the substance; the attempt is being made to placate the monster by feeding the citizen's liberties to him, by endowing him with political as well as economic authority.
It does not appear that the chief difference between our great economic concentrations and the sometimes greater concentrations of Europe lies in the contrast between public and private ownership. Ownership on this scale has everywhere been divorced from the power which used to flow from the possession of property. The millions of "owners" of the Soviet automotive monopoly have actually less power to intervene in the management of "their" property than have the 750,000 shareholders of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company or the 460,000 shareholders of the General Motors Corporation. Meanwhile, it is a fact that the directors of General Motors are subject to the law of the land and to the immense bargaining power of their workers' representatives. It is equally a fact that the directors of the Soviet automotive industry are the masters of their workmen and are above the law; for they, who call themselves frankly the Automotive Ministry, make the law.
Nor is it true that our great enterprise differs from nationalized enterprise, Soviet or other, in being animated by the "profit motive." Every economic enterprise, public or private, is obliged to budget for a profit. There is no escape from this, and the reason is not selfish but social. Without profits there can be no investment funds to provide replacement and enlargement of plant, and without these there can be no maintenance--not to say betterment--of the standard of living. The difference, then, is not that our enterprise works for a profit and the nationalized enterprise does not. Both work for a profit. The difference lies in the degree to which profits are distributed through the society. We do not, unfortunately, possess the statistics which would permit of a comparison on this score between Soviet Russia and the United States. If we took, as a rough guide, the standard of living, we should have to say that the American system of profit distribution was the more equitable. But even without that guide we may venture a guess that at least as large a share of American as of Russian profits goes to social purposes, through taxation, local charges, pensions, and the increase of the worker's purchasing power resulting from the ceaseless technological improvements which keep American costs down.
Our "socialization" is not always visible to the European eye, but only those who do not know this country would assume that we have remained outside the main stream of social change. Unless an American company wins a contrary decision in the courts, it will draw its balance sheet and distribute its profits as the Treasury approves. It will add to plant, not as it pleases but as the Treasury's tax and money rates permit, as trade unions in effect consent, as social conditions--cost of living, local taxes, housing, and the rest--in any given region allow. Its directors are not free to reorganize their company without governmental approval. They may not rearrange its finances, or borrow from the public, without the sanction of the Securities and Exchange Commission; and this, incidentally, involves disclosure of their affairs to an extent which would horrify a British businessman, be successfully rejected by a French businessman, and send a Russian industrialist into gales of laughter. Their accounts are audited, not as in France by a committee of directors who are free to cover up their own mistakes, but by members of a kind of guild known as public accountants who are, in effect, as much officers of the law as lawyers are. An American public accountant who signed a fraudulent balance sheet would be as reckless as a doctor who allowed himself to be bribed to sign a fraudulent commitment to an insane asylum.
In 1887 an American political economist was able to write that, "Whenever any economical agent does or forbears anything under the influence of any sentiment other than the desire of giving the least and gaining the most . . . the rule of competition is departed from." Another could still write 50 years later, "In exchanges between individuals, no interests of persons not parties to the exchange are to be concerned, either for good or for ill." To say that this rigorous view of competitive capitalism is no longer valid is not to assert that it is no longer practised--especially in Europe. It is not to say that the generality of American businessmen are not still concerned in the first instance--especially the smaller ones--with personal profit. But the idea of giving the least and getting the most is no longer an idea which will sell goods to the American people. And the idea that only buyer and seller are concerned is simply not true today. The whole of the public is concerned every time I buy anything at all; and it expresses its concern through a thousand regulations governing every aspect of production and distribution. The seller himself is concerned with what my neighbor will think of the article I bought, for the obvious reason that he would like my neighbor to buy it too. We do not live any longer in an economy in which the seller, having got his money, is content never to see his customer again--not, at any rate, in the United States.
To go back to great enterprise--our "trusts" as the European press likes to call them--the first concern of their directors is the assurance of a by no means extravagant dividend to the shareholders. Thereafter, the central concerns of the American manager are these: efficiency of plant, quality of product, competitive attractiveness of price, amicable relations with the Treasury and the trade unions, and the public repute of the company and its product. In the kind of world we inhabit, which is not precisely the retreat of a contemplative monastic order, these are not vulgar objectives, true though it be that they are not the ultimate objectives of life.
VII. DYNAMIC DEMOCRACY
In the Paris daily, Le Monde, of June 17 last year, M. Henri Pierre asked, "Will America find the long-sought original solution that will give us a synthesis of Socialism and liberty?" That is not the conscious purpose of many Americans, but it is in sum the solution towards which our society tends--provided that Socialism be understood as an inheritor of eighteenth century humanitarianism fighting for an optimum distribution of the good life, and not as a system whose shortsighted ideal is economic nationalism founded upon public ownership of the means of production.
We in America have had the embarrassing good fortune to profit during the past ten years from the misery into which the rest of the world--or most of it--was plunged by German and Japanese folly and conceit. We are not unaware that the New Deal never succeeded in setting our economy on an even keel. War, and the destitution that war left in its wake, rescued us from problems which might have become as difficult as those which now beset old Europe. But if this is true, it is also true that we have not been guilty of hubris, have not been so mad with pride as to tempt the gods to destroy us. Thanks in part to one piece of New Deal legislation--the S.E.C.--Americans have displayed a degree of prudence which no one would have thought possible 25 years ago. In our economic affairs, business leadership has displaced the reckless stock-market leadership of the 1920's; American labor is breeding a progressively higher quality of leader; the agricultural community has shown more public spirit than its legislative representatives have given it credit for possessing.
Our weakest sector has been in government, and this for two reasons. First, the right of disposal over a $40 billion budget offers immense temptations; the federal tax power has become so great as to corrupt men's intellects and imaginations even when it does not corrupt their morals. Secondly, there has hardly been time to breed a race of first-class public servants. There still lingers among us our nineteenth century prejudice against government service. The ease with which one or two ignorant and irresponsible Members of Congress can make conditions of government service almost unbearable for gifted and devoted men remains "a shame and a disgrace." Nor have we yet found a native type of non-economic reward, so that the most highly regarded citizens of our communities shall not necessarily be those with the most money. But we have learnt many lessons and have, without change in our character, transformed our society.
Earlier in these pages I asked that an "honest" picture of our society be drawn for the Europeans. My own picture may be thought to have got brighter than is consistent with honesty. Let me say without offense to European readers: I do not imagine that Christian missionaries always began by telling their catachumens about the Inquisition, the Calvinist witch-burnings, and the wars of religion. I cannot suppose that when that most rarely admirable of Teutons, Theodoric of Ravenna, was spreading notions of Roman law among the Germanic tribes, he made a great point of the bribery and delation that went on under the emperors. I have been feeling my way, looking for what is consequent about America, neither for the whole truth nor for a Propaganda Plan. The result I should like to see achieved was startlingly exemplified, the central argument of this paper was gratifyingly confirmed, when the first four postage stamps issued by the Republic of Indonesia turned out to bear the portraits of Washington, Lincoln, Franklin and Hamilton, side by side with those of the founders of the new republic. That is an instance of the moral authority we need to wield if our leadership of the free nations is to mean anything more than the wealth with which to buy allies.
America pulses with life. It may, like a tree, have its rotten branches, its dead wood; but when those branches are cut away--as happens again and again--the tree goes on flourishing. This is something which cannot be said for any blueprint society, of the Left or Right, bureaucratic or theocratic. Contrary to what was taught by the Fascists 20 years ago, it is the democratic society that is dynamic and the doctrinaire society that is static. Our society is not doctrinaire, is not all of a piece; its existence does not depend upon the quiescence and subservience of each tiniest part to the whole. Its moral nature is not imposed upon it by external authority, but inheres in it as the soul in the body. Too many Americans, in their personal conduct, give the lie notoriously to what the American society is; but we may hope that by a continued show of civic sense, generosity of spirit, and comprehension of the world around us, it will little by little win that respect without which leadership cannot be solidly established.
So much said, I look at the clock and wonder if there is time.
[i] At Plymouth, on February 9 last, the crowd sang "The Sidewalks of New York," "John Brown's Body" and "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain."
[ii] I limit myself here to European-American relations for very simple reasons. The Pacific area and the Indian sub-continent pose separate problems. As for Latin America, though it is in some respects being Americanized, it is still culturally under the domination of Western Europe. Its republics derive from the French and Spanish, not the Anglo-American type of revolution. Where its conflicts are ideological, they are European in ideology (so that I have no doubt that its opportunistic dictatorships would go Communist overnight if Communism were established on the European shores of the Atlantic). The hates and fears felt in Latin America with respect to the United States, like the pretense of cultural superiority, are of precisely the kind to be found in Europe.
[iii] The three quotations which follow are cited in Felix Morley's "The Power in the People," New York, Van Nostrand, 1949; from "They Preached Liberty," by Franklin P. Cole, New York, Revell, 1941.