“Writers and Human Rights”

“Writers and Human Rights”

The Forum, January 1935

It is probably true of every reader of a review like THE FORUM that he feels some sympathy for all recently formulated political ideas and all contemporary forms of civilized government. He realizes that every one of them manifests the convictions and even the pieties of honest men and that the new forms represent in their respective societies an effort to correct abuses and to cure disorders consequent on a rapidly changing world. In effect, the intelligent, open-minded reader feels himself in sympathy with certain ideas of communism, certain ideas of fascism; with certain facets of dictatorship and the ordered state. He is in sympathy with many of the new ideas but he also wants preserved what is fine in the old: in the new order, for instance, an hereditary aristocracy is doomed; but why not try to perpetuate the finest of those qualities evolved by an aristocracy or attached to the aristocratic principle? Why not try to preserve the finest of those qualities evolved by any class or division of men, irrespective of whether such class or division is to disappear as time goes on?

Granted such widespread sympathies and interests, how can an intelligent and open-minded man decide what political ideas call forth his deepest allegiance ? The best help to a decision, it seems to me, is not to limit one’s reading to politics alone but to make a selection, even a haphazard selection, among the contemporary books that represent the major intellectual and spiritual interests of men—religion and morals, poetry and philosophy, politics and science. We are lucky in that amongst recently published books we can find a volume by the greatest living philosopher, Henri Bergson; volumes by two of the deepest political thinkers in English, Walter Lippman and Bertrand Russell; a view of the world by Albert Einstein, the most famous of living scientists; a collection in two volumes of the best poetry in English, beginning with Wordsworth and ending with the major figures of our time, selected by James Stephens. In addition there are any number of books on fascism and communism, some by wise men and some by foolish, from which a reader can make any selection that suits him.

Well, after this course of reading by our intelligent and open-minded man, one could prophesy with nearly every degree of certainty, that he would reach the conclusion that democracy, with all its faults and failures, is the only form of government which can be fairly inclusive; that is, which can bring within itself the real benefits visualized by the others and at the same time leave people with a fair amount of freedom, economically and spiritually, socially and politically. But another conclusion that would force itself upon him is that in no society can we ever again have the nineteenth-century kind of freedom: what the economic-minded people termed laissez faire—the policy of non-interference of government in economics — is as dead as any idea can be.

The look of the words laissez faire suggests to me that, before going into consideration of why democracy is the form the intelligent, open-minded man would choose, some definitions are in order. I will endeavor to find a meaning for the various terms juggled around in contemporary writing on government, politics, and the class war.


WHAT IS connoted by “proletariat”? I take the definition from Walter Lippmann’s . The proletariat comprises “those who do not have property or a dependable occupation which assures them an income for their principal needs. The characteristic of the proletarian is not the meagerness of his income but its uncertainty. He lives in a condition of economic insecurity.” While it is the fashion now to use such terms as proletariat and bourgeois only in their economic import, actually these terms have two or more meanings. To the economic proletariat belong a great many who are not of it culturally; to the bourgeoisie belongs economically an array of people whose cultural life cannot be described by that term. “The characteristic of the proletariat is not the meagerness of his income but its uncertainty.” The most striking example in American history would be Edgar Allan Poe: belonging to the proletariat so defined, he was one of the highest geniuses the country has produced; his economic insecurity was such that his dying wife, to keep herself warm, had to keep his overcoat across her with a sleeping cat to give heat to her chest.

What is the bourgeoisie? This is a class in which there are more divisions, even economically speaking, than in any other. Writers of the extreme left often maintain that the bourgeoisie came up after the French Revolution. What they really mean is that the industrial capitalist with his origins in the working class came into power after 1789. But the bourgeois as the man of moderate property and with some security existed as a class for long centuries; his importance to the state was carefully considered by Aristotle in the Politics. As to what is meant by the term in contemporary political writing, I take from the Russian philosopher who was formerly a supporter of the Soviets, Nicholas Berdyaev: “The bourgeois is a man who is out to get rich by his own personal efforts, initiative, and energy” — in short, he is the man who becomes the industrialist and the capitalist, who, as Berdyaev goes on to say, “produced conditions of work which were more inhuman than those of serfdom and which cannot be justified in the conscience of a Christian.” It is very important to consider now what we mean by the bourgeoisie in the intellectual order — what, actually, do artists mean when they make use of the term? The bourgeois of the artist is a negative qualification, marked by hostility or dullness to things of the mind; he can belong to any class. He has, to use Bergson’s phrase, “the closed soul,” and for that he is as much hated by the artist as the economic bourgeois is hated by the proletarian. Thus we have three definitions of the bourgeois.


AND THEN we come to the one class for which, economically speaking, there is no definition; for, , “its status is not conditioned by economics but depends, first of all, upon birth and the good qualities of its ancestors,” Here is the man of the aristocracy. “Centuries have gone to his fashioning and his characteristics have been handed on from generation to generation. He is determined biologically and psychically and not economically. An aristocracy affirms the principle of inequality.” When an aristocracy has lost its wealth, we can, as Berdyaev says, better perceive the continuance of its psychical properties — not its pride and aloofness but its refinement, its nobility, its wide-spiritedness, its freedom from resentment and pettiness: these are all the qualities that, historically, caused an aristocracy to be looked up to.

We now come to the spiritual and intellectual aristocracy — to the class which is not productive in the material and economic order but which is creative in the spiritual and intellectual order. Its members cannot, on penalty of being destroyed and having spiritual values destroyed with them, become servants of any economic or class interests. All the classes have at one time or another been in hostility to this intellectual aristocracy, for they have expected it to serve their interests or, at least, not to oppose them. Socrates, Dante, Gallileo, Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky were all persecuted because they did not serve the interests of the powerful classes of their day; the number of lesser men and the names of those in our day who have been persecuted for opposing the classes in power, from Russia to Spain, would make a very long list.


OF COMMUNISM I give the dictionary definition, because of its simplicity: it is that communism is “a doctrine advocating common ownership of property instead of private ownership, government control and management of production, and distribution on the basis of equality and personal need, after all the people have pooled their production in a common fund.”

This, needless to say, does not cover everything that communism stands for. If it were all there might be cogent reasons why our intelligent reader might decide to give to it his allegiance. But communism has behind it a metaphysic, and it is this metaphysic which is blighting to the artist, the intellectual man, the religious man, to all who believe in the spirit. This metaphysic is known as the materialistic conception of history, otherwise dialectical materialism, and is copiously explained in Bertrand Russell’s . Not only does it declare that the production of the means to support life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced are the basis of all social structure — not only does it do this, but the materialist theory takes it upon itself to explain religion, philosophy, morals, art, and literature by the economics of each epoch.


AND NOW let us try to make a contact with fascism, which is a society based on the philosophy of nationalism. At the opening it will be enlightening to . “Fascism,” he has said, “is a spiritual conception born out of the general reaction of the present century against the materialist and degenerate positivism of the nineteenth century. . . . It is against the materialist conception of history. . . . Fascism rejects the absurd and conventional lie of political equality, the spirit of collective irresponsibility, the myth of happiness and indefinite progress. It affirms the irremediable, fruitful, and beneficent inequality of men. . . . With certain reservations, fascism can be defined as organized, centralized, authoritarian democracy.” At the basis of fascism, to quote Cole’s , “is the conception of the totalitarian state, that is to say, of the state as taking up into itself and unifying all the institutions of the national life, private as well as public. . . . For them, the national state is the ultimate being, more real than the individuals or groups which make it up and with an absolute claim upon the loyalty of every one of its members.”

All this means, of course, that there can be no free political discussion, no freedom of the press. No matter how much, therefore, the intelligent reader might admire certain of the doctrines and disciplines of fascism which are, in fact, an inheritance of the wisdom of the Roman Empire, of Greek philosophy, and of the traditional philosophy of the Catholic Church, it would be hard for him to become a fascist. And it should be added that fascism believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace.


AS TO WHAT democracy stands for, I take the description of it given by Bergson in his wise and exciting book, . “Of all political conceptions it is the furthest removed from nature, the only one which transcends, in intention at least, the conditions of the closed society. It attributes to man inviolable rights, these rights to remain inviolate and exact from all an unalterable fidelity to duty. It takes, then, for its material an ideal man, respectful of others and himself, taking upon himself obligations which he holds to be absolute, so that one can no longer say whether it is the duty which confers the right or the right which imposes the duty. The citizen thus defined is at the same time legislator and subject; the ensemble of the citizens is then sovereign. Such is theoretic democracy.”


TO UNDERSTAND all the implications of this description, one must know something of Bergson’s conception of the closed and open society and of the root bond between instinct and intelligence. For the sake of brevity and simplicity I do not quote his words literally, but give a resume of his meaning. Intelligence and instinct, in their rudimentary form interpenetrate each other and become dissociated as they develop. The instinctive society, the tribal society, was the primitive organization which excluded outsiders, was indifferent to the rest of mankind, and was always ready to defend itself and to attack. This was the closed society, human society as it came from the hands of nature — in fact, the perfect example of the closed society. Our modern civilized, intelligent states are far removed from the tribal, instinctive society, but they are also closed states, for they also are exclusive, to an extent, of outsiders and in time of war or crisis they revert again to the instinctive stage. There are to-day examples in Europe of the intelligent state reverting to the instinctive state. We may say, nevertheless, that we have
varying degrees of the closed state, each having advanced some way towards the open state. The open state, the open society would be the one which would include all humanity without any exclusions. This, like democracy, is an ideal which we can only approach.

We will understand now what Bergson means when he says that democracy is the only political conception which transcends the conditions of the closed state. This makes a special reason why the intelligent man visualized in the beginning of this article will be for democracy, though he will at the same time have to take into account many criticisms of it. The most obvious and at the same time the most searching of these criticisms I give . “Democracy is indifferent to truth because it has left its discovery to the votes of a majority, for it is only on condition of ignoring or not believing in truth that one can accept quantitative power and revere the opinion of a crowd. . . . The majority may be for error and untruth, leaving truth and rightness to a weak minority. . . . It is indifferent to the essence and direction of the popular will and has no criterion whereby it may judge its tendencies or decide the worth of the will itself.” The same objection has been voiced : “Fascism denies that the majority, solely through being the majority, can direct human society.”


LET us acknowledge at once the validity of these objections and admit that at present there Is no recognizable way by which the worth of the will of the people can be assessed. And in a new country like this it is not only difficult to assess the worth of the will of the people; it is even very difficult to recognize, except superficially, what the will of the people is. In old, homogeneous countries the will of the people is revealed in the whole history of the nation and is reflected in its culture; like every other great force it is shown in instinctive and unconscious ways. It is expressed for the many by the few in a country’s art and literature; it is expressed in its religious beliefs and in that unwritten tradition which goes to form the character of every state. We might go so far as to say about this country that the will of the people is only in process of formation; that its direction has been shaped historically on only one of the lines of democracy — political equality; that It Is not fixed on what liberty may ultimately mean or what fraternity may mean but is open to new conceptions of them. Because the past has not fixed the will of the people, an American democracy can take over ideas from the communist state or the fascist state without any necessity for revolution or overthrowing of the past. The old countries, no matter how intelligently they tried to transform themselves, are shaped and have to be shaped by their pasts. Hitler may be different from the Kaiser and Stalin from the Czar, but there is something in their respective governments characteristic of the Kaiserdom of the German Empire and the Czardom of the Russian autocracy. The French notion of democracy, with its special emphasis on equality, had that same conception of equality through all its history, as a political observer like Edmund Burke noticed before the Revolution. The sort of fraternity that Russia seems to be trying to develop shows itself in all Russian literature, even in the relation of lord and serf; as (to mention only one example) we can see in Gogol’s . The sort of individual liberty that is a passion in England, unaccompanied by any direct notion of either equality or fraternity, has its roots far back, and is expressed in the poetry of Langland and Chaucer and in the sagas before them again. That is, the expressed will of any people has its roots in an unconscious will noticeable through all its history. This unconscious will can, as has been indicated, fully exist only in integrated countries with a long past behind them. Unlike these old countries, America is neither helped nor hampered by the fact of a long past and an anciently evolved will. Granted that democracy is only an ideal, a road in which humanity is walking, It Is a road on which the new countries can advance farthest.

That everything of value in communism or fascism can be introduced into a free democracy is a conviction that I think will be more and more strengthened by a reading of Walter Lippmann’s The Method of Freedom, a short book of a hundred fourteen pages, which, I think, should be read by everybody who believes in the potentialities for development in democracy. The fact that in a democracy like America’s men are starving while others of no greater or even of less importance to the state or to humanity have control of vast wealth which ought to be public property — this has generated the idea in many minds, particularly young and striving minds, that human rights and property rights are incompatible. But nearly all political thinkers have agreed that private property is the original source of freedom. Now what is private property? If we accept Lippman’s definition as simply “substantial security of income necessary to existence,” most people, whatever political label they attach to themselves, can accept the notion of private property, A man or family must feel economically secure, must feel also that no private person or enterprise or corporation can exploit the sources of supply for its own aggrandizement. This is really what all non-fanatical people with a real conception of liberty demand.


IT WILL BE said that in the modern world collectivism, or the assumption by the state of the responsibility for the operation of the national economy, has come to stay; and it will be asked what form collectivism can take in a democracy. As an alternative between the economy of the laissez faire state and the economy of the regimented state, Walter Lippman offers what he calls free collectivism, a method of social control “which is not laissez faire, which is not communism, not fascism, but the product of the experience of the English-speaking countries.” It provides both for individual initiative and collective initiative, and he calls it the Method of Freedom. It can be said of the English-speaking peoples, that of the three shapes which make the complete form of democracy, liberty, fraternity, and equality, liberty is the one to which they have especially attached themselves and which, for that reason, it may be assumed they know most about. It is obvious that the modern authoritarian states, far from believing in liberty as one of the conditions of human progress, either do not believe in it at all or believe in it only in such weak and diluted form as is permissible in states organized in the military pattern.

I hope I have written enough to convince my readers that democracy, above all, American democracy, which has not upon it the dead hand of the past, can be developed so as to include all those growing rights and to satisfy all those demands that a citizen is entitled to make on the government of his country, the first of which and the one on which all others depend is that he should have sufficient food, clothing, shelter to be able to begin to call himself a free man. As to the books which may help the reader to come to his conclusions, there are many besides those listed here. If the reader has time for only one of the books, I would recommend that this be The Method of Freedom, because its author is one of the solidest living political thinkers, without prejudices or fanaticisms, and for the especial reason that he believes in that liberty which all intelligent men realize to be one of the conditions of human happiness and human progress. The ideal he envisages is the security of the free man “as against all principalities and powers of the world.” If the reader has a longer time at his disposal, there is perhaps no book written in this century which will repay him more for the reading than Bergson’s Morals and Religion—it is one of the great books of our time. While it is not as easy reading as a popular outline of thinking, it is probably as easy reading for the educated person as any of the books on politics. If the reader has a good deal of time he will find Bertrand Russell’s Freedom versus Organization a necessary complement to Lippman’s book, because it gives the histories of modern democratic movements and of socialism and communism, with a penetrating criticism of the ideas on which they are based. While Einstein’s does not seem to me to be as important as I have seen stated in the reviews, it is especially valuable for our thesis because of the beauty and the humility of his statement of a scientist’s belief in the democratic ideal.

Christianity and the Class Struggle, Nikolai Berdyaev, 1933
Christianity and the Class Struggle
What is Fascism? Benito Mussolini in the Italian Encylcopedia, 1932
GDH Cole 1933
Possibly The End of Our Time Nikolai Berdyaev, 1924
What is Fascism? Benito Mussolini in the Italian Encylcopedia, 1932
Nikolai Gogol, 1842
Published in 1949
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